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SMARTRans by Edward S. Wright

Review by Ed Quillen

Transportation – March 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

SMARTrans – Sensible Mountain Area Railway Transport
by Edward Stewart Wright
Published in 2000
by Bookpublishers Intercontinental Ltd. in Littleton
ISBN 0-9677234-3-4

AFTER THE EISENHOWER TUNNEL under Loveland Pass opened in 1973, Interstate 70 was supposed to solve some of Colorado’s transportation problems. But now, almost 30 years after that celebration, the modern highway through the northern mountains has become more of a bottleneck than a corridor.

The presence of the Interstate inspired growth in Summit and Eagle counties, and the highway funneled skiers to the resorts — Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain, Beaver Creek, Vail, even Winter Park and Steamboat, which sat well away from the Interstate. The more skiers, and the more construction and retailing and dining and all the rest, the more traffic between Denver and Glenwood Springs.

It’s a road for vacationers, but it’s also a route of transcontinental truck traffic and local commuters — and they’re all tired of the bumper-to-bumper congestion that peaks on big ski weekends and gets aggravated with every snowslide or jack-knifed semi.

The first proposal is to widen the road from four lanes to six or eight. That’s expensive anywhere, especially in the mountains. Plus there’s a political problem: the good people of Clear Creek County say they will fight any effort to add more lanes that would destroy more of their communities.

Another proposal has surfaced recently. Extend the four-laning on U.S. 285 to Webster, and build a highway south from there with a tunnel under Georgia Pass.

That sounds more like a pipe dream than a possibility, but the proposal that has drawn the most attention is even more fantastic — an elevated train propelled by linear-induction electric motors.

As Edward Stewart Wright points out in this book, the technology of moon landings is a lot more developed than this form of transportation, which is not in routine use anywhere in the world.

Wright, a mechanical and √¶ronautical engineer, has a more practical suggestion — use passenger technology that is known to work in mountainous regions.

That technology, which moves millions of people to and from Swiss mountain resorts, is a an electrified meter-gauge railroad extending from Denver International Airport to West Vail, with branch lines to Breckenridge and Winter Park, and at some later date, to Leadville and then over Independence Pass to Aspen.

Most of the line would be standard adhesion traction (the motors turn the wheels, which pull the train along the rails), which can handle grades up to about 5%.

Regular railroads tunnel under the steeper stuff, but cog adhesion (like the Pike’s Peak Railroad) can handle grades up to 30%, and electric locomotives can be configured to provide both forms of traction.

The right-of-way could be narrow, and curves sharper, by using tracks only one meter (39.37 inches) apart, rather than the standard 4 feet, 8¬Ĺ inches.

In this short book, Wright explains his proposal and provides a reasonably comprehensive analysis, down to costs and fares, the probable market, and where the money might come from.

Trains would be made up as pairs of cars, and would range from two to 10 cars long. It wouldn’t be high-speed, but would average about 50 mph. The state would build it, but contract its operation to a successful bidder.

He figures it would take about a quarter of the traffic off I-70 once it was running, and at peak times, special express trains could be added. And he points to the reliability and timeliness of the Swiss railroads to demonstrate that it could be done here.

In general, the book is clear and easy to follow, and it has good illustrations with a useful index.

I think he missed a couple of things. One is that this is Colorado, where the three-foot narrow-gauge (as opposed to the slightly wider meter-gauge) is part of our state’s identity — so why not build it to the traditional 36 inches?

He envisions this as a passenger-only service for road-weary vacationers, commuting workers and interested tourists, but I think there would also be a premium market for has-to-get-there-right-away express parcels, and he ignored that possibility.

Wright makes a solid and clear case that the state should at least consider “Sensible Mountain Area Railway Transport” when it looks at ways to solve the congestion along I-70.

I’m of two minds here. One is that the state should ignore the problem of congestion along I-70, and if Vail needs more lanes, let Vail pay for them. I can’t think of anything Vail Associates ever did for me, so I don’t know why I should do anything for them.

The other is that if congestion halts growth in the Sacrifice Zone, then the worst aspects of that growth will spill our way even more, and so it’s in our interest to make sure there’s good transportation over there, no matter what it costs.

What happens along I-70 affects us, and it will affect us even more as tourism becomes a greater economic factor. This book is a welcome addition to the debate, and one with a sensible and affordable proposal that Colorado’s policy makers should address before buying into something that will be more expensive and less reliable.

–Ed Quillen