Denver Union Station: A Real Transportation Center

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.

Published November 12, 2014 in Transportation -

The sidewalk across LoDo (Lower Downtown) Denver, is sprouting new office towers like a lawn seeded in Winter Rye. Why? MASS TRANSIT!

Denver hasn't strayed from the Holy Bible of massive terminal design-- 'Passenger Terminals and Trains,' 1916, By John Droege, 410pp and republished for the industry in 1969 by Kalmbach Publishing, Milwaukee, WI. No detail of station design was missed by Droege, from the size and height of waiting rooms; pedestrian, railroad and bus/streetcar traffic flow to the demeanor of Redcaps (think modern Skycaps). Droege, perhaps unwittingly wrote the seminal handbook that has effected people purchasing tickets on virtually any mode from Jakarta to Jacksonville. A man with no formal education, this incredibly talented and self taught man started off as a Telegrapher for the Baltimore and Ohio (CSX) and by 1900, he had worked for the Chesapeake and Ohio (CSX); Norfolk and Western (NS); East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia (NS); working his way from Telegrapher, to Stenographer to dispatcher to yardmaster to trainmaster. He joined the Lehigh Valley as division superintendent and went to the nations number one passenger hauler, the New Haven Railroad as superintendent, retiring after a half century of service as vice-president and general manager of the system. Drogue lived to 100, passing away in Orlando, Florida in 1961.

How Denver Is Becoming the Most Advanced Transit City in the West

But the key question remains: Will metro residents give up their cars?

TARAS GRESCOE @grescoe Jun 24, 2014

Union Station is the centerpiece of Denver's FasTracks expansion program. (Taras Grescoe)
DENVER—It's a vision straight out of a transportation planner's fondest dream.

In the center of the metropolis, the Beaux-Arts façade of a grand old railway terminus, finished in robin egg-hued terracotta stone, is cradled by the daring swoop of a canopy of brilliant white Teflon. On one of eight tracks, a double-decked passenger train has stopped to refuel. A few hundred yards away, German-built light rail vehicles arrive from distant parts of the city, pulling into a downtown of soaring condo towers and multifamily apartment complexes. Beneath the feet of rushing commuters, express buses pull out of the bays of an underground concourse, and articulated buses shuttle straphangers through the central business district free of charge. A businessman, after swinging his briefcase into a basket, detaches the last remaining bicycle from a bike-share stand next to the light rail stop, completing the final leg of his journey-to-work on two wheels.

An out-of-towner could be forgiven for thinking she'd arrived in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, or another global poster child for up-to-the-minute urbanism. The patch of sky framed in the white oval of the Union Station platform canopy, however, is purest prairie blue. This is Denver, a city that, until recently, most people would have pegged as an all-too-typical casualty of frontier-town, car-centric thinking.

This is an excellent intro to a story on Denver Union Station. The place literally drips with history, it's a veritable temple of Vulcan, Zeus, Indra, Perun and all of the other representative gods of railroading past, present, and future.

Phil Washington, manager of Denver's Transit District, says that Denver is more of a car town then Jacksonville. He said they launched a publicity campaign to sell the community on the whole package, stressing this was not taking money from roads, but giving everyone more choices and the opportunity to save huge sums of money in the bargain.

Another reason for the success was a previous FREEway project that 'blew up' in the face of the lobbyist and V-8 fans that would carve another 'cartopia out of the Mile High City. A early program called T-REX (for Transportation Expansion) paid for the demanded widening of I-25, the primary north-south route through the state. They got a collective smack of reality when the sacrosanctity of the Peter-Principal came home to roost when the additional lanes induced a demand that immediately jammed the road with traffic. People were not just frustrated, they were ready to revolt against 54 years of highway hard sell.

The last Denver Tramways as well as the Denver Intermountain Interurban cars rolled to a stop 46 years ago courtesy of the same outfit (National City Lines) that killed the streetcar system in Jacksonville, Washington, Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, Cleveland, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Memphis, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, among others. Now there was no doubt that Denver wanted their rail system back. In 2004 they passed the $4.7 billion dollar FasTracks program. This amazing plan included 21,000 park and ride spaces, 18 miles of BRT, 57 new transit stations and 121 miles of both light-rail and commuter rail (different animals one is more of a modern streetcar like vehicle while the other is conventional trains running in commute service) and the price tag? A mere $7.8 billion dollars (adjusted).

Phil Washington, general manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District, said: "From the start, we made it clear we weren't competing with the car," says Washington. "And we explained, to the average Joe, that for only four cents on most ten dollar purchases, he'd be getting a whole lot of new transportation."

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

Photographic Tour of Denver's Union Terminal Station

Walking from east to west through the terminal, from entry, to waiting room, to shops, hotel, restaurant, out the back doors onto the concourse where we wander a bit before moving into the subterranean bus zones below the trains. We'll pass the bus gates and up the escalators into the light-rail/shuttle bus platforms. No 'Dolly Trolley' potato-chip-trucks; no modern name; no separate stations; no roads; no fancy elevated walkways, no bland Soviet era architecture.


The sidewalk across the LoDo (Lower Downtown) Denver, is sprouting new office towers like a lawn seeded in Winter Rye. Why? MASS TRANSIT!



Along the south wing of the front of the station, fountains attract all manner of folks from children dancing in the water in the summer to young couples enjoying the sights and sounds over lunch.







The entry vestibules are placed at the four corners of the main section of the station, a section about 1/2 the size of Jacksonville's grand old terminal.


Everyone I witnessed, from Medellin, Columbia, to Seattle, entering the station experienced a moment of awe, prepared to be dazzled by Denver! What will it take for Jacksonville's proposed Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center (JRTC) to provide its users with a similar experience?







Denver Union Station is a one stop masterpiece. The architectural attention to detail, the mixing of the very old with 'Star Trek' renders an exciting appeal that lifts your eyes to soak it all in. Compare this with the 'Post Revolutionary Cuban,' appeal of the 'Good Enough' solutions typically provided for Jacksonville's mass transit users.














Phil Washington, general manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District, said: "From the start, we made it clear we weren't competing with the car," says Washington. "And we explained, to the average Joe, that for only four cents on most ten dollar purchases, he'd be getting a whole lot of new transportation."






Nested in a sea of shining glass towers, bred by transportation perfection as opposed to purchasing all of the adjacent land and developing a bus version of the Vatican City in the center of a desert, this station works and when it is filled with trains, light-rail and buses, it is going to flow as God and John Droege intended.










Hanging in the hall a giant photo of the height of the reconstruction.



As recommended by Metro Jacksonville for Jacksonville, the PV's or 'Private Varnish' railway business cars haven't been left out, but then, we read the book. The soaring, sweeping Polytetrafluoroethylene fabric, actually add's fascinating feature contrasting the old with the very new.































Editorial by Robert W. Mann. Contact Robert at

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