Where Would High Speed Rail Go?
A complete high speed rail system from Fort Collins to Pueblo, more or less along the I-25 corridor and from DIA to Eagle, more or less along I-70 would cost $21.1 billion to build. A map of this proposal is on page 18 of the executive summary.
The proposed routes only loosely match those of the existing I-25 corridor, instead using mostly "greenfield" construction dozens of miles over in some places and parallel to the interstate highway, more or less. This greatly reduces the cost of the project, allows for faster routes and allows for more convenient station locations.
Exending the line beyond Fort Collins, Pueblo and Eagle would be very expensive with only modest additional ridership according to the study:
[T]he parts of the system north of Fort Collins, south of Pueblo and west of Eagle County Airport comprised 40-50 percent of the system’s capital cost, yet only generated 3-6 percent of the system’s ridership.
High speed diesel trains were considered for these areas, but they would operated at a more than 50% operating cost loss and would provide little that intercity buses can't provide since they travel at about the same speed as interstate highway traffic and these areas don't have a problem with traffic congestion on their major highways.
The DIA portion would run parallel to the FasTracks light rail portion:
The Regional Transportation District's airport train will serve local transit patrons with a 30-minute trip for what might be a $5 fare. . . while the high-speed alternative might make the same trip in 12 minutes for a $15 fare.
The study proposes to develop high speed rail in the state in four phases, shown with the capital costs (including trains):
(1) DIA to Colorado Springs Airport with eight stops and twenty to twenty-five trips per day ($3.32 billion),
(2) Downtown Denver to Copper Mountain with eleven stops and twenty-five trips per day during ski season ($9.55 billion),
(3) Denver to Fort Collins with two stops and Colorado Springs to Pueblo with a single new stop each served by eighteen trips per day ($4.1 billion which breaks down as Fort Collins $2.1 billion; Pueblo $2.0 billion), and
(4) Copper Mountain to Eagle with three new stops, and a spur route to Blackhawk with a single stop each served by about eighteen trips per day ($4.15 billion which breaks down as Copper Mountain to Vail $1.75 billion; Vail to Eagle $1.69 billion; Blackhawk $0.91 billion).
The first phase would be an eleven year project; the next three would be fourteen year projects, in each case including environmental impact statements and pre-design planning. The entire system could be in place by 2035.
The facts of the study, however, make a reasonable case for limiting the I-70 corridor project in phase four from Copper Mountain to Vail, eliminating the part of the proposal from Vail to Eagle, at a savings of $1.69 billion in capital costs.
The study assumes that fares of 35 cents per mile (about $40 one-way from Denver to Pueblo or Vail) would cover all operating costs as they do in the Northeast Corridor high speed rail lines. The study estimates that a complete system would carry 35 million passengers a year by 2035, generating more than $750 million in passenger fare revenue.
What Kind of Trains Would Be Used?
The proposed system would operate using a "very high speed electric train" comparable to the German InterCity Express, French TGV, and Japanese Shinkansen, which have an average operating speed of 120 mph to 200 mph, and a peak speed of 150 mph to 220 mph. Average travel speed is lower because the train has to stop to pick up and drop off passengers. Average speed is expected to be 90-100 mph in the I-25 corridor, and 60-70 mph in the I-70 corridor.
This is about 10% slower in practice than the Maglev system used in Germany and Shanghai. These systems cost about three times as much to install in the I-25 corridor and about 17% more in the I-70 corridor, but is offset by lower operating costs. And, most of the extra cost of the maglev system is in the Vail to Eagle portion of the line that may not even make sense to build. The speed benefits are modest and they would slow down the system if installed in the I-70 corridor only, by making it necessary passengers from DIA to disembark and change trains at Union Station in downtown Denver (where a very high speed electric train must be used to serve the rest of the I-25 corridor).
The proposed system is faster than the electric rail systems used by Eurostar in U.K./France/Belgium, German InterCity Express-T, and American Acela systems. The proposed very high speed train would cost about $3.1 billion more in the I-25 corridor as this alternative. But, downgrading the I-70 corridor part of the plan to the slower Acela grade high speed electric rail system would increase the cost of the I-70 part of the system by $2.3 billion, and requiring a train change at Union Station for passengers from DIA would remove some of the speed benefits of high speed rail.
By comparison Amtrak's non-high speed rail systems average an operating speed of 30-50 mph and have a peak speed of 79 mph. High speed diesel trains such as the Spanish Talgo and German InterCity Express-TD have an average operating speed of 50-70 mph and a peak speed of 110-130 mph, and would work out in practice to have speeds in the I-25 corridor of 72-79 mph running parallel to highways.
The study indicates that ridership on a high speed train that is faster than driving would be 3-4 times as high as on a high speed diesel train traveling the same speed as a car, and 7-10 times as high as on existing Amtrak trains that are much slower than driving. The faster a train travels, the more heavily it is used.
Is It Worth It?
The public benefits of the I-25 corridor part of the system that would serve 3.5-4 million people, and provide a renewable energy compatible way to provide a faster connection Colorado's major cities for less than $7.5 billion without an operating cost subsidy are clear. The first phase of this high speed rail system should be commenced ASAP.
The public benefits of the I-70 corridor part of the system that would mostly serve affluent ski resort and mathematically challenged casino bound tourists are less obvious. Apart from peak ski season weekends, it would provide little speed advantage over the buses already used. The cost is very large compared to the benefit that would be provided to the ski industry economy, and the case that this benefit should come from government funds is much weaker. The proposal would reduce pressure for Colorado to widen I-70 and would become a signature attraction of the state. But, $13.6 billion is not chump change. This looks very much like economic welfare for casinos and ski resorts. If these industries, which are the primary beneficiaries of this high speed rail corridor are willing to pay for it, or a private venture with a state monoply to wants to build and operate the line, fine. But, if not, it isn't clear that the people of the state of Colorado should.
Pointedly, the study does not clearly separate the costs and benefits of the I-25 corridor part of the rail system from those of the I-70 corridor part of the rail system.
I would, at least, be inclined to put in place the third phase of this project before the second one, to insist the the casinos pay for the entire capital cost of the Blackhawk spur, to cut the line off at Vail, and to insist that the ski resorts pay the lion's share of the I-70 corridor expenses. And, of course, later phases could be abandoned if the earlier most likely to suceed phases of the project did not perform as well as expected.