Optimism is growing around the prospects of passenger rail in the Yampa Valley
Tour of rail in Steamboat, Hayden shows support for utilizing existing coal-dominated rail line to move people up and down the valley.
Optimism around the potential for passenger rail in the Yampa Valley is growing following a gathering last month that saw state and local officials tour down valley and discuss some early logistics for how it could work.
The meeting included representatives from Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. in addition to elected officials, Colorado Department of Transportation leaders and personnel from both Gov. Jared Polis’ and Sen. John Hickenlooper’s office.
Following the meeting, local state legislators Rep. Meghan Lukens and Sen. Dylan Roberts penned a letter to CDOT asking the agency to start drafting a Service Development Plan for passenger rail in Northwest Colorado. The plan would serve as a guide to develop the railway and would make the service more competitive for federal funding opportunities.
“We would then learn what are the needs, what are the costs, what do we have, what do we not have to launch this plan,” Lukens said. “CDOT was very interested. … Next steps are do the studies, ask CDOT to do an official study and then keep going down the train tracks, if you will. Keep chugging along.”
Lukens said the tour highlighted the 3,000 cars that travel between Craig and Steamboat every day on U.S. Highway 40, a number that is only expected to increase in the coming decades. The other key detail is that the single most expensive part of building passenger rail — the railway itself — is already in place.
Union Pacific was not on last month’s tour, but held a gathering about rail earlier this year with a similar group of stakeholders. Following that meeting, Steamboat Resort and the Yampa Valley Community Foundation partnered to fund a feasibility study for passenger rail, both up from Denver and within the valley.
“Not only would it help our workforce with transportation, it also would help address climate threats,” Lukens said. “It’s also something that three of my main towns or cities — Hayden, Steamboat and Craig — are really unified on. This is something that really would just connect Routt and Moffat County in a way that a lot of people want.”
Routt County Commissioner Sonja Macys said the tour started in Steamboat where the conversations largely focused on a line from Denver up to Ski Town USA. While she is more focused on passenger rail within the valley, Macys said the effort has to start with a line to Denver as much of the federal funding available is tied to making intercity connections.
Representatives from Steamboat Resort shared their vision for a new gondola between the base area and Meadows Lot, a vision that Macys said could eventually be expanded to include another gondola or other transportation method to a rail station somewhere in town.
As for where the station could be, Macys noted that there is a lot of land near the Depot Art Center (The original Steamboat Springs train station) that is owned by the city, U.S. Forest Service, CDOT or Union Pacific. Macys said the area is also within a creative district, which could open up more funding opportunities.
“When you think about what that could look like into the future in terms of redevelopment, there’s a lot of possibilities there,” Macys said.
The tour continued to Hayden. (Macys said she made sure CDOT officials were well aware of U.S. 40’s deficiencies along the way.) The former Hayden rail station is about a mile from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so there would need to be some form of micro transit to get passengers the rest of the way there, Macys said.
From there the line would continue on to Craig, where Macys said she has heard from a lot of locals that are excited about the possibility of passenger rail.
Timing is a big unknown at this point, but Macys said the focus for the next two years should be to focus on getting federal funding that is available for these types of projects. It could work to incorporate early pieces of passenger rail into a Regional Transportation Authority and use there with busses until rail is on line, Macys said.
Another thing happening now is that Union Pacific is in the process of renegotiating its agreement with Western Slope counties that collectively own the Moffat Tunnel and are paid a low flat rate each year to use it. (Macys said Routt gets about $12,000). Macys said she is trying to position Routt County to have a more active role in that process.
“What we’re trying to do right now, the phase that we are really in is just kind of myth-busting,” Macys said. “We’re trying to get people to stop thinking about all the reasons we can’t and we couldn’t and we didn’t and think about all the doors that are open right now today that if we choose to not walk through them, they could be closing within two years.”
The tenor of the passenger rail discussion has changed significantly in just the last year. In a meeting with Eagle County Commissioners in 2022, the Routt Commissioners spoke very skeptically about passenger rail. At the time, Commissioner Tim Corrigan specifically pointed to the costs.
A year later, Corrigan says he is still somewhat skeptical but has decided to “not be a negative voice.”
“Hey, If all the stars line up,” Corrigan said. “At the end of the day it is going to cost a lot of money, but maybe that money is there.”