Denver Union Station: A Real Transportation Center

November 12, 2014 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

No 'Regional Transportation Intermodal, Multimodal, International, Governor, Mayor, or General so-and-so Memorial, All Purpose, Transportation Palace.' Just DENVER UNION STATION and that says it all in The Mile High City. Metro Jacksonville's Robert Mann takes us on a stroll through a stunningly amazing place to catch a ride, play, eat, read, shop or hook up in the heart of Denver. If we're lucky, we'll discover some lessons that will be applicable for Jacksonville.

The grand old station will play host to 9 railroad lines when the construction is completed. Washington says; "You'll wheel your suitcase out of Denver International Airport, ride the train to Union Station, and hop a Car2Go — or even a B-Cycle if you're traveling light — to your house or hotel. All using one card."

The Wynkoop Street entrance to Denver Union Station includes an imposing six-story high Welcome Arch which is emblazoned with a Hebrew word "MIZPAH,' which translates to 'God be with you while we are apart,' and is illuminated with 2,194 incandescent lights. Denver's citizens will tell you the sign is a Native American word that translates "Howdy Partner."  Once one passes through the foyer you literally float into the main waiting room with its massive 8 foot tall chandeliers and plaster arches decorated with Columbine flowers.   The original welcome arch was torn down in 1931, seen as a traffic hazard, FREEways completely replaced the fast electric interurban railways by 1958. With the rise of Stapleton Airport railroads handed off their domination of travel in 1958 and within a year, petitions to abandon passenger train service flooded the government. Not unlike Jacksonville by the 1970's, Denver Union Station and the surrounding urban district was somewhat lower then skid row. While both cities ultimately restored their classic railroad stations, Denver repurposed the entire city core using the Union Station as the sparkling showpiece of the city while Jacksonville turned the entire neighborhood of LaVilla and Brooklyn into a empty moonscape.

The Denver Union Station was purchased by the RTD and the Denver Regional Council of Governments, from the railroads for $49 million dollars including the weed grown railroad yard. Amtrak's single Colorado train, The California Zephyr, still calls at the station offering coach and pullman type bedrooms for Chicago or the San Francisco Bay area.

The rail yard reconfigured into an 8 stub track station with an additional 2 light-rail tracks. The rest of the land has bloomed with the typical roaring TOD (transit oriented development) area, proof once again that while JTA's BRT might attain some degree of TOD, rail is 'Development Oriented Transit.' Denver's RTD rail projects are ranging far and wide and without the usual flak from the Libertarians; maybe because the president of their local 'Free Market Think Tank,' is the former chair of the RTD! The trains are being manufactured by Hyundai Rotem, new low-floor trains (the next generation of the Silverliners already operating in Philadelphia) will reach maximum speeds of 79 miles per hour. People will fly in to Denver and literally take an escalator downstairs to a railroad platform where they'll be whisked into downtown. Otherwise, there is some push to reestablish long distance service via Cheyenne to Bosie-Portland-Seattle. A even more likely long-distance route would split the Los Angeles - Chicago Southwest Chief at Trinidad, sending a section of the train north through Pueblo and Colorado Springs to Denver.

Walking up the sidewalk to the station, one is greeted by broad sweeping plaza's, fountains, and sidewalk cafes. Entering the station, one feels much like entering The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, the ghosts of a million persons make this a spiritual-like experience, and indeed Denver has reconstructed the Holy Temple of Railroading.

Through the south vestibule the station's waiting room opened deep and wide to our right, it's waiting area divided up into small private like clusters. The ceiling some three or four floors above is festooned with amazing irreplaceable chandeliers, while giant arched windows allow sunlight to stream in even in the dead of winter. Walking toward the back of the station Amtrak maintains a small ticket office in a side hall, this following the time-honored railroad practice of setting the functioning business segments out of the primary concourse. Two corridors lead from front to back, one on each side, while two others run parallel to the front and back of the station neatly sectioning off the waiting area. Between the front vestibules a avant-garde restaurant and bar accessible only from the interior is obviously an urban hot spot.

A boutique hotel The Crawlford, occupies the upper floors of the entire north wing of the building and was named on of the top 11 business hotels in the world by @CNNTravel. #Denver #travel

The balance of the lower floor of the north wing is packed full of restaurants, pubs, gift shops and a very popular urban bookstore. The station, in fact the entire LoDo District, is a sea of people set in an urbanists paradise.

About those travel accommodations? Unlike the monstrosity planned in Jacksonville, one can walk in the front, along the concourse and out the back in a matter of a few 'pardon me's,' and a New York minute. Exiting through either of the rear vestibules one steps from the grandeur of the 1800's into mid-twenty first century ultra-modern. A Magnificent, soaring, space age train shed is covered in white Polytetrafluoroethylene fabric, also known as PTFE. Around the Amtrak platform at track 4 the PTFE is clear.

Eight stub tracks terminate at the station, not unlike the MJ 8-track, double ended, Jacksonville concept. Six of these tracks will be filled with the RTD's new commuter trains as the lines open one by one. Need to get to work? Where's the bus? Well it won't be in the next county like some misguided planners would have it locally, in fact, step off the train and you'd be standing over the bus! The RTD buses have a 1.5 block dual subway with a center concourse that runs under the tracks at a 90 degree angle. Plans are in the works to move Greyhound, Black Hills Stage Lines, Arrow and my old alma mater, 'Trailways,' into the underground Main Street. Both ends of the Bus concourse as well as a couple of other points are connected to the surface by stairs, escalators and glass elevators. Real time information, double glass gates, brilliant natural  (from skylights) and artificial lighting, ticketing, information, security and other services are literally at your fingertips.

At the far end of the bus concourse, about 1.5 to 2 blocks from the train station and a half-block from the far (west) end of the bus concourse one pop's out at the surface on a large plaza bounded by the Denver Light Rail platforms, and the 16Th Street Mall shuttle bus platforms. These downtown shuttles now been replaced with 36 ultra-low emission hybrid-electric vehicles, no 'potato-chip-truck-thinks-its-a-trolley' AKA: PCT's needed.

The design is a flowing river, not centered so much on intercity rail, as it is buses sandwiched between local and regional rail. Few passengers are likely to be using the single Amtrak train serving Denver at this time, but those that do will be just as well served without having to walk multiple blocks to access other modes.

Since it was recently announced that downtown Jacksonville's JRTC will be up and running within 2 years, perhaps we're in for another of those Jacksonville moments where we plunge right off the cliff. Nevertheless, even if the JRTC design isn't further modified in the future, there is one redeeming virtue in this Denver story... "Denver? Lead on, Ock will be back! Indeed a mountain retreat might be just what the doctor ordered."

Editorial by Robert W. Mann. Contact Robert at

Next Page: Tour of Denver's Union Terminal Station

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