A half-mile from the front entrance of Denver International Airport, two prairie dogs popped up from their dusty burrows. They saw concrete ties, rails, and construction equipment for the East Corridor Rail Line, a commuter train project that will provide a one-seat ride from Denver’s Union Station directly into the airport. “We’re building a basic, meat-and-potatoes rail line—with 15 minute headways so people get from the airport to downtown fast,” explained Kevin Flynn, a spokesman for Denver RTD. “The train will use standard equipment. It’ll include level-boarding platforms to minimize station dwell time.
The multi-billion project is part of Denver’s “FasTracks” initiative, a sales tax imposed by voters in 2004. It is similar to Los Angeles’s 2008 “Measure R.” But unlike Measure R, FasTracks is entirely for public transportation expansion. All told, Denver, which has roughly one-fifth the population of Los Angeles, will build 122 miles of new train line. Los Angeles is building about 90 miles of new track.
Trains will take about 30 minutes from downtown Denver to the airport, with seven stops, at speeds near 80 mph—25 mph faster than Light Rail. Because the line will use standard, mainline equipment, there’s nothing to stop a future direct-to-the-airport Boulder service, or even a ski-train, from sharing the airport station, although Flynn said “we’re not currently planning that.”
Denver’s new line will use Korean-built Electric Multiple Unit trains (EMU). EMUs, larger cousins of Light Rail (LRT), are powered by overhead wire, third-rail, or both, and are used all over the world for commuter, subway and surface systems, including airport trains such as London’s Heathrow Express. They are used in the Western US too; in LA’s subway and on Bay Area Rapid Transit.
Currently, the closest Los Angeles has to an airport train is the Green Line LRT down the center of the Century Freeway. Its Aviation Station is 2.5 miles from LAX. The Crenshaw Light Rail project, currently in development, will get closer and might connect to the terminals, although it’s unclear when or how. If that happens, and Metro completes all its planned projects, it will take an hour to get to the airport from Union Station by rail, with 17 stops and a transfer at Exposition and Crenshaw.
Meanwhile, anyone who knows LAX has probably noticed the old railway bridge over Century at Aviation, a mile east of the airport terminals. That is part of a County-owned ROW called the “Harbor Subdivision.” This freight spur runs directly to Union Station. The line could be brought into passenger service for a tiny fraction of what Metro spends on other projects. Using Denver’s meat-and-potatoes approach, it would take 20 minutes for a train to get from Union Station to LAX using this alignment. But it’s not going to happen; five miles of the Harbor Subdivision’s 15-mile route between LAX and Union Station will be torn out for the Crenshaw Line. And since LRT and mainline rail are incompatible, that kills the option for a direct, LAX-to-Union Station train on existing infrastructure.
The Crenshaw line will cost $1.72 billion for 8.5 miles of transit. The Denver East Rail project, which includes new tracks, flyovers, stations and some new alignment, is 23 miles and will cost $1 billion. The airport train project required the cooperation of multiple cities, the airport authority, the Union Pacific Railroad, and other agencies. One complex portion, near Denver’s downtown core, required bypassing a freight yard and skirting a historic neighborhood. “But they found ways to work together,” explained Flynn.
Meanwhile, outside Denver Airport, the prairie dogs dove into their burrows as a yellow machine tamped gravel between the cross-ties of the new tracks. Trains will whisk people to downtown Denver starting in 2016. The Crenshaw Line, still without a direct LAX connection, opens three years after that.