Rail in Denver: Boom, Bust and Boom Again

In places, Denver's railroad is an industrial gash that cuts through a vibrant city. As the city continues to grow around one of its first lifelines, several railyards still sprawl for acres in the middle of more human-oriented development.
Signs of decay are evident in the switchyards and their rusty tracks, but the railroad in Denver still hums with activity. On any given day over 40 trains lumber through Denver, hauling hundreds of thousands of tons of goods through the city to their final destination.  

Denver's origin story is tied to the railroad. When the Union Pacific (UP) decided to go through Cheyenne, Wyoming, UP Vice President Thomas Durant called Denver "too dead to bury." But the city's residents banded together to build a spur to Cheyenne, saving the city and laying the groundwork for growth for decades to come.

"Without the railroad, Denver would be just another of the 500 ghost towns in Colorado," explains Thomas Noel, the University of Colorado Denver history professor who's also known as  Dr. Colorado. "Without the railroad, Denver stagnated. In between 1860 and 1870, it gained only 10 people -- from 4,759 to 4,769."

But after the railroad arrived on June 22, 1870, Denver's population steamed ahead, Noel says, surging to 35,000 by the end of the year. "By 1890, over 100,000 people lived in Denver. The railroads created this huge boom. It's kind of along the lines of how Chicago used the railroads to build itself into the second largest city."

In exchange for building the then-vital spur, the railroads were granted huge pieces of land in Denver. "Big, square-mile sections were given to the railroads," says Noel. "Originally they owned about half of what is now metro Denver."

Obviously, they've sold most of that off, concentrating their lines and railyards, he adds. "It's amazing to see how the railroad has declined in importance and how most of those railyard tracks are abandoned. The automobile kind of doomed the railroad."

Union Pacific spokesperson Mark Davis counters, noting that rail utilization is up. "We have seen an increase in train traffic on our line between Denver and Cheyenne over the last several years due to the oil business increase in that area," he says. "We operate an average of a dozen trains a day on our lines between Denver and Cheyenne and Denver and Grand Junction. We operate about six trains a day from Denver east to the Kansas border and there are about 25 trains a day on the line from Denver to Colorado Springs -- made up of UP and BNSF trains."

"Denver uses the railroads as a spiderweb of steel with lines reaching not just to all of Colorado communities, but to Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Mexico -- all the surrounding states -- making Denver a Rocky Mountain metropolis within the whole region," Noel says. Railroads in New Mexico and Utah still measure their distance from Denver's Union Station, showing its importance.

It's a vast and busy spiderweb -- more than 2,500 miles of rail web out from Denver throughout Colorado, moving tens of millions of tons of freight a year. For UP alone in 2013, 246,435 railcars originated in Colorado and 144,650 rail cars were offloaded in Colorado on more than 1,500 miles of rail, supporting nearly 6,000 jobs in the state in 2013.

RiNo and the rails No area in Denver feels the impact of the trains as much as the industrial-turned-artistic neighborhood of RiNo.

No area in Denver feels the impact of the trains as much as the industrial-turned-artistic neighborhood of RiNo. "RiNo really is divided in half length-wise by the Union Pacific tracks, which is kind of interesting from a land perspective because you've got more large industrial parcels on the west side of the tracks," says Zeppelin Development Project Manager Justin Croft. "You still have this historic commercial zone with a fair amount of industrial on the east side of the tracks, too."

The UP switchyard that separates the two sides has five tracks. An even larger Burlington Northern yard with about 40 tracks separates RiNo and Globeville, according to Croft.   

The industrial history has meant that newer mixed-use buildings in the neighborhood like TAXI or The Source butt up against the tracks. When such buildings are next to a switchyard where trains idle, it creates a sound issue, Croft says. "A development up against those tracks has to mitigate sound somehow."

The railroad also causes access issues for the burgeoning neighborhood. For instance, The Source is right next to Mountain Cement. " It's a company with a railroad spur that takes cement off of trains there," Croft says. "We had to work out an access agreement with them."

RiNo's parking is getting worse, and the railroad doesn't help, he adds. "You don't have all these streets to absorb parking for the neighborhood, especially as more retail and apartments come online." For instance, notes Croft, "There's a large piece of triangular land owned by the railroad that kind of serves as a dumping ground where couches end up, that kind of thing. That land is pretty attractive for parking cars so people can explore the rest of the neighborhood by foot."

Davis says UP evaluates such proposals. "If there is interest in railroad property, our real estate team is in a position to listen to an inquiry and determine if it is a good fit for the railroad," he says. In this case, discussions to use that plot of land haven't been successful to date.

Croft also characterizes the railroad as an essential part of RiNo. "People have called the switchyard a moving piece of art," he says. "Looking at all these different colored train cars slowly moving in that space it's definitely interesting to look at."

While the trains pose some issues in RiNo, Croft doesn't seem anxious to change or consolidate the rail lines. "RiNo has this industrial history, this manufacturing history. I think the trains have always been a part of it. On some level it just has a different feel, it's grittier than other parts of the city."

Working on the railroadOn any given day over 40 trains lumber through Denver.

As Denver has grown, city officials have had to work with the railroad in many cases. About 50 streets cross the railroad in Denver, and there's only one instance -- 51st and Havana -- where the road was there before the train tracks. The city also worked with the railroad and the state extensively in consolidating lines in the 1980s and '90s when train use saw its steepest decline.

That also offered a development opportunity. Denver and the railroads created the Consolidated Main Line, getting rid of the switching and maintenance yards in the Central Platte Valley. That opened up valuable acreage that's since created Commons Park and helped spur development downtown and in Jefferson Park and LoHi.

EPA estimates hold that the city has invested in $300 million in the Central Platte Valley and $500 million into the Denver Union Station hub. This has led to hundreds of millions -- if not billions -- of dollars invested by private industry.

Still, these projects take a lot of time. "Rail line consolidations are very complex," Davis says. Planning for the master line and the valley began in the 1980s, and work is ongoing. From the railroad perspective, Davis says, "All railroads involved should be part of planning from the onset so all operating concerns are upfront during the first discussions."

These days however, the city hasn't been doing as much work with the railroad, according to a spokesperson with the Department of Public Works. The people who worked on the Central Platte Valley railroad consolidation and redevelopment are no longer with the department.  

Even when the city constructs bridges or underpasses under the railway, like the pedestrian bridge that will soon be built between 35th and 36th streets in RiNo, it has to talk with the railroad. In such cases, "The city planning team reaches out to our public project team as early as possible when there is infrastructure growth projected," Davis says.  

Light rail spurs growth

There's also another rail story at play in Denver, RTD's light rail, which continues to grow. "We're going back to the future," Noel says. On June 3, 1950, he observes, Denver discontinued using its streetcars and started using rubber-tired buses. "We waited a long time -- until 1995 -- when the light rail came back."  The city is now encouraging more use of public transportation to help reduce the need for vehicles and parking in Denver, he asserts.

"Now, with the re-opening of Union Station last year and the installation of those new commuter rail lines to DIA and Arvada, Union Station is being reborn as a rail hub. There's not much provision for parking in the city planners," Noel says.

"We're rebuilding a rail network that we once had," Noel says. He bemoans that "now it's costing billions of dollars where before it was much cheaper to build it and would be cheaper if we had kept the rail in place."
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Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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