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No More Light At the End Of Moffat Tunnel


Derailing the Ski Train that pulled skiers from Denver to Winter Park and back for 69 years is a big F-U from the rail transportation industry in general. The rich and powerful monopolies that own and dictate the use of steel rails around the country, as well as here in Denver, do so thanks to our public dollars and subsidies.

You’d think that drawing on some sense of obligation to We the People, who made their parallel empire possible, there would be a Public Good card we could play to keep the Ski Train running. Not a chance.
The various railroads think of us—the people who live and move in and around this steel transportation network—more as a pain in the ass than “stakeholders.” Back in the day, getting to and from the Western Slope and beyond meant a long 150-mile slog through Wyoming or down over Raton Pass in New Mexico. The idea of poking a tunnel through the base of James Peak was kicked around for years. The (then) steep price tag of $6.6 million wasn’t something the state legislature or We the People were keen on paying; several bills and referendums intended to finance the project were shot down during that time.

In 1921, when a flood decimated areas in and around Pueblo, the wily railroad connivers were able to tuck funding for the Moffat Tunnel into an emergency aid package. Not wanting to let the flood victims suffer, the bill passed and the tunnel work commenced. Six years later and 130 percent over budget, the tunnel was opened.

The public wallet was used for that and countless other funding schemes that benefited our state’s railroads—all in the name of Public Good. But today, with priceless tunnels, bridges and rights of way firmly in hand, the increasingly consolidated ownership of the railroads defines its mission and purpose less in terms of The Public and predominantly in terms of The Goods it ships. The reason being that chemicals, fuel (oil and coal) and other products in various stages of assembly are pushed and pulled around on the tracks and bridges for which we put up the money.

Back in the day—read early 20th century—writing those infrastructure checks was easier for the public to swallow. You could actually take a train from Denver to Kansas City, Casper, Dallas or Santa Fe and beyond. But as highways improved in quality and cars became more ubiquitous, the convenience of personal transport slowly but surely sidetracked travel by rail.

But today, as air quality and climate change issues loom and the inevitable return of $5-per-gallon gasoline threatens us all, the thrifty and clean alternative of travel by rail is nowhere to be found.

It’s not as if there’s no public support for trains. Advance ticket sales for the Ski Train were strong and the people overwhelmingly passed FasTracks, which included a strong rail component. Budget and funding snafus aside, the existing railroads’ reluctance to work with Denver’s Regional Transportation District in allowing access and use of their existing tracks for commuter rail is a reason that aspect of the project has been crippled. Add to that the glacial pace of consideration, let alone approval, of any project that makes use of railroad rights of way and it’s hard to imagine a less public-minded monopoly.

AmTrak didn’t need to be demanding in its terms for allowing the Ski Train deal to go through (and don’t get me started on that fubar passenger service…). But it’s not a little perturbing that railroads are making money hand over fist charging We the People to move our goods on infrastructure that We paid for. Yet they won’t pretend to make room on the tracks for us passengers. It’s sad to see the Ski Train get hung out to dry. But it reflects the sad state of the larger picture of passenger rail service across the country. We deserve better.