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  • Dylan Anderson

Is passenger rail possible in the Yampa Valley? Steamboat Resort is studying if it could be.

With the number of coal trains traveling these lines declining, Union-Pacific has signaled it's open to considering rail both from Denver and within the valley.

Steamboat Railroad tracks
The sunset shines off railroad tracks on the west side of Steamboat Springs. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)

Large trains used to rumble through the Yampa Valley to the Hayden Station daily, bringing coal from local mines. But the frequency of those trains has declined in recent years, and when the Xcel Energy-owned plant closes in 2028, those trains could stop entirely.


They may stop even sooner if Xcel decides shipping coal on trucks is more cost-effective.


But while the trains may go away, the tracks that carry them won’t. Many officials and locals alike have tossed out the idea of reviving passenger rail in the Yampa Valley, but those musings have often been met with skepticism.

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. is now studying how valid that skepticism may be.


The resort, Steamboat Springs, Routt County and others have partnered to study the feasibility of a Regional Transportation Authority for the Yampa Valley, but the vision has been largely focused on busing. Seeing potential value in rail, the resort has paid to study that as well.


While the study is described by Sarah Jones, the resort’s director of social responsibility, as in the very early stages, it hopes to be the first step in understanding what passenger rail — both within the valley and to Denver — could look like.


Perhaps most importantly, the owner of the rail lines, Union-Pacific, is open to the idea.


“We had a conversation with Union-Pacific and they said ‘Hey, we’re interested in thinking about of continuing the dialogue on two pieces,’” Jones said. “One would be a train that would go from Denver … and — maybe a little less interesting to them — a regional train.”


Jones said they didn’t want to add a burden to the current RTA study, so in partnership with the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, they are funding a parallel study about how feasible passenger rail would be in the Yampa Valley.


The goal of the study is “to give us basically a cost-benefit analysis, a thumbs up or a thumbs down,” Jones said. “Should we think about rail or is it just too many hurdles? Too expensive? Not enough interest from Union-Pacific to happen right now? … Should we even consider it?”


Passenger rail first arrived in Steamboat in 1909, connecting the town to the outside world, where before a days-long horse and buggy trip was needed to get goods from and travel to larger cities. It once shipped strawberries, lettuce and cattle across the state and the nation. But around the mid-1950s, that had tapered off and passenger rail would stop in 1968.


Jones said her interest in passenger rail is largely in terms of the regional line. Many resort workers commute from so-called bedroom communities to get to work and places like Oak Creek, Hayden and Craig offer a lower cost of living than in Steamboat. Rail could make living out of town and working in Steamboat more viable.


There is also a sustainability piece to passenger rail. While it would likely be diesel-powered trains running these lines, that could be more environmentally friendly than the 3,000 plus cars that drive between Craig and Steamboat every day.


“Could this open up opportunities for folks to buy in Craig or live in Craig and work here?” Jones said.


Another potential benefit to the resort would be moving tourists into town from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, Jones said. It would require extending the spur to the Hayden Station, but it could be a better option than the shuttle system currently in place which often works well, but has it’s own flaws.


One key part of the study would be to understand how many people might use regional passenger rail, Jones said. If it is 50, then it probably will never happen. But if 3,000 people could use it each day, then maybe it is a possibility. That is a big question involved in how climate-friendly a rail line like that would be as well.


Routt County Commissioner Sonja Macys said she was very supportive of the idea of passenger rail, but felt it would be at least a decade away if it’s a viable option. Macys went on a trail trip from Denver to Fraiser put on by Union-Pacific with various stakeholders in the passenger rail realm including Jones.


While a train from Steamboat to Denver could be useful, the speed of it would probably be an important factor in how many people would use it. As for the regional rail, Macys said she felt like this could be the first step toward that.


“What is happening is we’ve got a convergence of the power plant going out of business and UP wanting to do something with these lines, because basically without anything moving it’s a stranded asset,” Macys said. “If were talking about passenger rail, that isn’t that much more of a leap of logic from an engineering perspective than what they’re moving with coal.”

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