Front Range Passenger Rail: Bringing Frequent Passenger Rail Service to Colorado’s Front Range

An Amtrak train is in the station at Denver Union Station at night. Passengers are on the platform. The iconic neon Union Station Travel by Train sign is lit up.
Something new is afoot in Colorado’s Front Range. Though the cowboys, prospectors, and mountaineers that built the state have faded into history, another group of builders from Colorado’s rich past – railroaders – may soon be returning to open a new chapter in the history of the mountain west.

In recent decades, Colorado has seen significant population growth, primarily along the front range. As a result, existing transportation systems have become strained, and new mobility options are required to keep Colorado’s people and economy moving. While the Denver area has been meeting this challenge with the creation of RTD and major expansion of light rail and commuter rail service, it is becoming clear that intercity rail will also need to feature in Colorado’s future.

Fortunately, the state has taken strong steps to initiate a new passenger rail project. The state has examined where and how to build a route connecting the major front range population centers, in several recent studies. Most recently, the 2020 Front Range Passenger Rail Alternatives Analysis report reviewed many potential alignments and identified three strong options to be advanced to the environmental permitting and review stage. The study also analyzed the feasibility and projected costs and ridership of each alignment. All potential alignments generally follow the same north-south axis connecting Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins along existing transportation corridors. Future expansion could also include connections to Cheyenne, Wyoming, or New Mexico, as well as a link to the Amtrak Southwest Chief.

In 2021, the state created the Front Range Passenger Rail District for the purpose of planning, designing, developing, financing, constructing, operating, and maintaining a passenger rail system along the front range. The district covers the portion of the state that would be served by the new rail service; it has the authority to levy taxes with voter approval and to use eminent domain for land acquisition. In 2022, the District was awarded $9 million for planning work, and undertook operations and service planning studies to further advance the project.

The project will be built primarily along existing freight rail corridors, and close coordination will be required with Class I railroads BNSF and Union Pacific to ensure that both people and goods move as efficiently as possible around the state. Connections to the Denver RTD commuter and light rail network, as well as Amtrak’s long-distance trains, will give the project the benefits inherent in the integrated network approach. Projected costs price the project in the range of $8 to $15 billion dollars. While much funding could come from taxes raised by the Front Range Passenger Rail District, new possibilities have been opened by federal grants available, thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021.

While the exact route, station locations, and types of trains to be used for the project are yet undetermined, Colorado is clearly taking the right first steps in putting together a long-term infrastructure plan that sets up Front Range Passenger Rail for success. This project will better connect the state by improving efficiency, reducing environmental impacts, and improving quality of life for visitors and Coloradans alike.