Amtrak’s Southwest Chief passenger rail service trains roll through Trinidad twice a day on their long routes from Chicago to Los Angeles and back. Randy Grauberger, the first project director for the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, spoke about the Chief’s future at the noon luncheon of the Trinidad & Las Animas County Chamber of Commerce luncheon held in the Pioneer Room of the Sullivan Student Center on Wednesday, June 19 at Trinidad State Junior College.
Grauberger was named to his new position on Feb. 27, 2019, after serving for 28 years at the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) as a planning and branch manager.
Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico introduced Grauberger to the crowd, highlighting the ongoing efforts of Trinidad and other communities along the Southwest Chief line to maintain passenger rail service through the region.
Grauberger said the commission’s purposes were to work to maintain the present passenger rail service across Southeast Colorado, while working with the neighboring states of Kansas and New Mexico to upgrade rails, ties, signal systems and other rail infrastructure on Burlington Northern and Santa Fe’s (BNSF) Southwest Chief line across the three neighboring states.
Another of the commission’s goals is to pursue possible rail service extension into Pueblo, and possibly Colorado Springs, from La Junta.
The commission will also consider re-routing the Southwest Chief service between La Junta and Trinidad by way of Pueblo and Walsenburg to better serve Southern Colorado, and facilitating the development of Front Range Passenger Rail service going into the future.
The commission is currently working on the passage of a $16 million TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Recovery) grant for the rehabilitation of the Southwest Chief line, based on federal legislation that was awarded in 2018 as part of an earlier grant round.
Amtrak has agreed to provide $3 million in matching funds required to complete the grant-based project, he said. He noted that the commission’s goals for passenger rail service along the Front Range seemed to be expanding.
“Amtrak did a study in 2016 and they said they believed there would be enough ridership by adding just one rail car that would be added in La Junta, go to Pueblo and come back to La Junta the next day,” he said.
“That’s a really exciting opportunity and, in the last few months, the commissioners have decided that if that line could be profitable just going into Pueblo, just think of what it would be like in terms of Amtrak’s ridership if it could go all the way up to Colorado Springs. The tourism activity up there, and the military installations that they have in El Paso County, now that’s pretty exciting, just 70 miles going over the hill and into Denver.
“Those are really exciting opportunities for both the Southwest Chief and the San Francisco Zephyr, the passenger train that goes from Chicago to San Francisco through Denver. I just can’t imagine the opportunities for increased passenger rail traffic through the West that that new route would represent.”
He also noted that a route from Pueblo through Trinidad and over the Raton Pass would also open the entire San Luis Valley to passenger rail service.
“The effort that’s probably going to get the most attention now is facilitating the development of Front Range passenger rail service,” he said. “That would connect Fort Collins down the Front Range to Denver, Colorado Springs to Pueblo, and perhaps, at some point in time when ridership would justify it, it could do more than just connect the Amtrak train to Trinidad.”
Grauberger used a PowerPoint presentation with maps to highlight possible bus transit and rail options through the region, including estimates on the number of riders per year using the various routes.
He emphasized the possibility of a highway mobility hub on I-25 north of U.S. Hwy. 34 east of Loveland that could include a bus station, pedestrian walkway and existing shopping opportunities, along with a future office and residential complex. “Mobility hubs along the Front Range serve as precursor investments for eventual Front Range passenger rail stops,” he said.
Grauberger also focused on some of the 2018 accomplishments of the commission, including the $16 million TIGER IX grant received to replace 60-year old bolted rail, turnouts and at-grade crossings on the BNSF’s trackage along the current Southwest Chief line, including some funding for signal system upgrades to New Mexico’s Rail Runner Commuter service.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 18-001 that included $2.5 million for the Passenger Rail Commission, including funds for staffing, studies and a federal grant match.
The commission received a $9.16 million CRISI (Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements) in December 2018 to install PTC (Positive Train Control) on 179 miles of BNSF track between Dodge City, Kansas, and Las Animas, Colorado, as required by Amtrak for continued operations.
Planning and Environmental issues were also important in the Passenger Rail Service development plan, Grauberger said. These included the purpose and need for the service, corridor options and potentially feasible alignments, potential speeds and technology for Passenger Rail service, levels of service and high level cost estimates for pre-construction, construction, equipment, operations and other expenses.
More information on Colorado passenger rail service is available on the website: www.colorail.org, or by calling 303-355-7985. A quarterly newsletter about Colorado passenger rail service is also available on the website listed above.