The Future of the West

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Earlier this summer, the new and improved Union Station opened in downtown Denver.  The station was rebuilt in an effort to accommodate several new train lines that are currently being built in the Denver metro area.  By the time this process, known as FasTracks, is complete, the metropolitan area will finally have an extensive rail system connecting many of the major employment, residential, and cultural institutions in the region.

As not only Denver, but the entire region, grows in population, this facility will serve a significant purpose.  Nearly every major city has one or more central transit hubs.  These transit hubs, such as New York’s Penn Station, often serve as a connecting point between multiple transit systems, making transit in and around the region easier.  Although only one of the new FasTracks lines has officially opened, Union Station is already prepared to serve this purpose.

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The most significant aspect of the construction of this facility, was, of course, the building of new train tracks and platforms.  With multiple tracks, and multiple platforms, Denver’s central train station is, for the first time, looking like the types of train stations I am accustomed to seeing in major cities with advanced transit systems.  In fact, seeing the pedestrian bridge with stairways to each platform actually reminded me of the train station in Jamaica, Queens, where several lines of the Long Island Railroad join, I would frequently transfer trains as a kid.

The new train lines in the RTD system, including the all important line to the airport, which will begin operations within the next 24 months, will all board on these tracks.  However, for now, the only train operating on this set is the AMTRAK (the other trains operate on the light rail tracks on another platform a block away).

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Unfortunately AMTRAK operates only one line through Denver, the California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to Emeryville (near San Francisco).

I seriously doubt that I will ever ride this train.  There is only one train option in each direction per day.  Each morning, a Westbound train is scheduled to arrive at Denver’s Union Station at 7:15 A.M., and depart at 8:05.  Each evening, an Eastbound train is scheduled to arrive at 6:36 P.M. and depart at 7:10 P.M.

In addition to the lack of additional options, according to the schedule, the trip to Glenwood Springs (on the Western Slope, and a major tourist destination) takes just under 6 hours.  The return trip is scheduled to take over 6 hours!  According to Google Maps, the drive from Denver to Glenwood Springs takes 2.5 hours (without traffic).  Even for those without a vehicle, both Greyhound and Colorado Mountain Express offer bus service to Glenwood Springs in under 4 hours.

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And, of course, AMTRAK’s other issue is its lack of punctuality.  As the day progressed, the station filled with people, not only checking out the new station, but with people arriving to take the Eastbound train scheduled to depart at 7:10.  By quarter after 6, the information board had indicated that the train would arrive at 7:23.  Good thing the schedule builds in that half an hour layover, right?  Well, for AMTRAK, that was not nearly enough.  By 7:30, the train had not arrived yet, with the board now indicating an 8:07 arrival.  That train would eventually arrive at 8:30.

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The backbone of Denver’s transit system remains its buses.  In fact, the Rapid Transit District operates three types of buses; local, express, and regional.  The local buses are primarily for transit in and around the immediate area.  Most of these buses stay at street level.  But the express and regional buses, which connect downtown Denver to places father away, such as Boulder, Evergreen, and Longmont, arrive and depart from an underground bus terminal right below the train tracks that were just built.  In addition to these regional buses, longer distance buses, operated by Greyhound, are now arriving and departing at this bus terminal as well.

 

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And, of course, if there is time between buses or trains, the new Union Station has a terminal with bars, restaurants, a large waiting area, and even an airport-style newsstand shop.

This new centralized transit hub gives Denver something that nearly all significant cities have; a focal point for its transit system.  Currently, the focus is on connectivity within the metropolitan area.  Service to areas outside of this particular urban corridor is limited, and sometimes unreliable.  However, with the tracks in place, and the additional amenities built, it is not hard to imagine a future state where some kind of efficient transit service between Denver and other parts of the West has been established, and functions out of this very location.

Futurists and urbanists often talk about the emergence of “megaregions“.  This is already clearly occurring in the Northeast, with the corridor of cities from Boston to Washington D.C. becoming highly connected and well traveled.  The de-facto capital of this region is New York City.  Other megaregions expected to emerge include one in the Southeast centered around Atlanta (and expected to include Charlotte), and one in the Midwest centered around Chicago (and certain to include Milwaukee and Madison).

With Colorado’s rapid growth, it is not hard to imagine a megaregion centered around Denver, with frequent travel to Boulder, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, and possibly even places in the mountains (a train to Vail would be great).  With the building of the new Union Station, with more track, more platforms, a sizable waiting area, restaurants, bars, and many other transit-oriented services, Denver is preparing itself for its role as the de-facto capital of the “New West”.

 

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