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Dormant Tennessee Pass Line railroad tracks at Sage, a point near the Eagle County Regional Airport. The Gypsum wallboard plant is in the background, with its active rail connection to Dotsero.
Avon Mayor Amy Phillips makes it clear she doesn’t think rail service will be revived through her town at the base of Beaver Creek ski area in her lifetime — and she makes it clear there are higher priorities, such as attainable housing, regional bus transit, child care and recruiting teachers.
But if passenger rail does come back, Phillips argues it should connect to Vail.
“Avon has not taken a stance,” Phillips said of the idea of commuter and tourist trains on the dormant Tennessee Pass Line. “I personally think the only way it will be palatable to the community is if there is a plan that includes passenger service all the way to Vail … from (the Eagle County Regional Airport) for travelers and residents. Avon Station is already in place for such service. Other stops would need to include park-and-ride services and could easily extend to Glenwood Springs.”
Phillips, who is also the chair of the Eagle Valley Regional Transportation Authority authorized by voters just last year, acknowledges passenger rail on the dormant rail line through town — freight trains stopped in 1997 and passenger service ended in 1964 — has been on Avon’s radar in the past. In fact, the town has rail-specific legal counsel on retainer.
“I’m thinking big picture of how rail transit might generate enough community interest and revenue to become feasible,” Phillips said in an email interview. “I also know that when we, Town of Avon, condemned that small piece of land to create what is now Avon Station, we were thinking about potential rail service.”
Avon Station is a bus-transit hub next to the railroad tracks that have never been formally abandoned by Union Pacific. The transit center is also close to the Riverfront Express Gondola, which takes snow riders from the Westin Riverfront hotel up to Beaver Creek.
Eagle County Regional Airport, in terms of the number of large commercial airliners and private jets, is one of the busiest in the state during peak ski season, and the dormant railroad tracks run right by it. Some local officials are pushing for more Vail and Beaver Creek snow riders (Aspen skiers also fly into Eagle County Regional) to bypass Denver International Airport and the often-snarled Interstate 70 and then rely on local public transportation, including, possibly, a local train.
Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid is a much more enthusiastic advocate for reviving passenger rail from the airport between Eagle and Gypsum, just under 35 miles west of Vail on I-70, to the Vail Transportation Center at the base of Vail Mountain. Langmaid, in a phone interview, argues I-70 has already reached a tipping point of too much vehicle traffic and not enough capacity.
“We cannot continue to add more pavement,” Langmaid said. “It’s incredibly expensive to just build one parking space in Vail. The land is so precious, so we need to use our existing rail line that’s just sitting there, asleep. We need to use that asset, and it’s really a shame that we haven’t.”
Langmaid, founder of the Walking Mountains Science Center, says all the local communities that signed onto the Eagle County Climate Action Collaborative want to reduce the number of carbon-spewing vehicles on local roads — in part by increasing public transportation, including rail. Transportation currently accounts for more than 40% of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Increasingly, I-70 is snarled year-round by crashes on Vail Pass (10,600 feet in elevation) and at the Eisenhower Tunnel (more than 11,100 feet), and the Colorado Department of Transportation has increased road capacity just 2.6% between 1990 and 2023, while Colorado’s population has increased more than 75% during that time span.
However, the long-dormant Tennessee Pass rail line, once it heads southeast out of Avon, doesn’t turn up the Gore Creek Valley toward Vail. It keeps following the headwaters of the Eagle River through Minturn, Red Cliff and over Tennessee Pass to Leadville and eventually Pueblo. Someday, advocates say, a revived Tennessee Pass line could connect to an expanded
statewide rail network in Pueblo or on the other end at Dotsero.
Langmaid envisions quiet, battery-powered or electric trains peeling off from the Tennessee Pass line at Dowd Junction, where Gore Creek pours into the Eagle River, and using the I-70 right-of-way for five miles east into Vail.
“It would have to follow I-70,” Langmaid said. “It would be low impact, and so that needs to be part of the planning is to minimize the environmental impacts and to benefit the community impacts. So, to get people to work easier so they don’t have to struggle with a commute on I-70 and expend precious resources on their car or create carbon emissions. This is a solution that would be low impact for the environment and high impact for community benefits.”
But Langmaid says an Eagle County Airport-to-Vail rail connection can’t happen without funding help from federal, state and private-sector sources. CDOT is currently pushing forward with a $5 million study of revived passenger rail service from Denver to Craig in Northwest Colorado, with expanded service to two ski areas owned or managed by Denver-based Alterra Mountain Company — Steamboat and Winter Park. State lawmakers, supportive of that concept, also say they would back an Eagle County train.
Opposed to return of freight trains
Asked about both the Northwest Colorado rail project to two rival ski resorts and the idea of reviving passenger rail from the Eagle County Airport to two of its own ski areas — Vail and Beaver Creek — Vail Resorts spokesman John Plack emailed: “As demonstrated by our support of the Eagle Valley Regional Transit Authority, Vail Resorts is supportive of solutions that make it safe and easy for people to access work and the outdoors.”
Broomfield-based Vail Resorts also owns Epic Mountain Express, a van company connecting its resorts in Eagle and Summit counties with DIA.
Christof Stork, who has been advocating for an Eagle County passenger rail line since 2016, says extending passenger service beyond the Denver-to-Fraser Winter Park Express ski train doesn’t make as much sense as a dedicated commuter and tourist train using lighter, faster trains on the Tennessee Pass line. That’s because he says federal law mandates heavier, slower passenger trains on lines that share tracks with freight such as Union Pacific’s active Central Corridor line to Craig.
“The commuter line could transport employees in the early morning, skiers in the mid-morning, tourists up Tennessee Pass in mid-day, and then skiers, employees, and bar-hoppers and restaurant clients in the afternoon and evening,” said Stork, a tech entrepreneur and the chief scientist for a seismology company in Golden who has studied the Eagle County rail line extensively.
“In the future, the rail line can tie into Vail via a gondola from Minturn,” Stork said. “The key is that people will use public transportation if it is fast, comfortable and has a reliable schedule. Modern commuter rail has these properties while buses do not, and during bad weather, rail is often reliable while roads are not.”
Stork’s idea of a Vail Mountain gondola connection from the old railroading town of Minturn, which can be skied to via a backcountry gate in Vail’s Game Creek Bowl, would likely meet resistance in the small mountain town along U.S. 6 and 24. Both Minturn Mayor Earle Bidez and Mayor Pro Tem Terry Armistead have strongly opposed the return of freight trains.
It’s unclear if they or the majority of town residents would get on board with a low-impact passenger train, which is why Vail Mayor Langmaid’s idea of a spur along I-70 directly to Vail might gain more traction. In 2010, a study put the price of dedicated high-speed rail, on all new tracks running along the I-70 right-of-way from DIA to Eagle County Regional Airport at $16 billion.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: email@example.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.