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The idea for a cog railway serving a busy Utah recreation destination came into sharper focus this week when proponents unveiled possible alignments and cost estimates that suggest rail could help solve the growing transportation quagmire in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
A nine-mile rail line to Alta is the latest high-capacity transit option under consideration for the canyon that sees up to 3 million visitors a year coming to enjoy two world-renowned ski areas and year-round recreation in an alpine setting just outside Salt Lake City.
Proponents say rail could do a better job with fewer impacts than the other options being explored by the Utah Department of Transportation, which include expanded bus service, a gondola and road improvements. As an added benefit, a cog rail system, if it’s electrified, could be integrated with existing light-rail transit in the Salt Lake Valley, according to Mike Allegra, a consultant with the Swiss railway design firm Stadler and former president and CEO of the Utah Transit Authority.
With 10-minute headways, the system could move 3,000 passengers an hour up the canyon. The run would take 19 minutes to Snowbird and another six minutes to reach Alta. Trains could easily move more passengers than cars, considering only 1,000 vehicles can travel up the canyon per hour even in the best of circumstances, Allegra told the Central Wasatch Commission Monday.
“This is a vision for the future,” he said. “It’s cost effective. It’s going to last us a long time. We believe it accommodates all of the key issues in these canyons that the community has been asking for. It’s safe. It’s environmentally secure. It provides a year-round public use.”
During his years as UTA’s CEO, Allegra oversaw a huge expansion of passenger rail, including TRAX lines to West Valley City, South Jordan, Draper and the Salt Lake City International Airport, as well as the extension of FrontRunner commuter rail and construction of the Sugar House streetcar. But his tenure also was marred by a number of controversies, including international travel, excessive bonuses and pay and sweetheart deals with developers.
Steep terrain rail
With about 100 in operation around the world, cog railways are employed in steep terrain and are particularly common in the Alps. The most famous one connects Zermatt with the Swiss national rail system.
The rail is equipped with cogs that engage a cogwheel on the locomotive so the train can maintain traction. Stadler, whose U.S. operations are based in Salt Lake City, is a leading designer of cog railways and is helping rebuild the one up Colorado’s Pikes Peak.
Cog rail recently emerged as an option for Little Cottonwood just as UDOT is settling on a path forward on its transportation plan, which doesn’t even cover the equally crowded neighboring Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Most stakeholders insist UDOT’s final vision must take a regional approach, and rail could be a good fit, said Central Wasatch Commission executive director Ralph Becker. A canyon rail system tied to regional transit could ease congestion not just in the canyon, but also in the valley.
“If — and it’s a huge if — but if rail could work, it may very significantly reduce vehicular traffic,” said Becker, a former Salt Lake City mayor and avid skier familiar with both canyons and their problems. “That means less air pollution. It also means ease of use and convenience for the passenger who’s going into the mountains.”
The nine-mile line would run from a terminal below the mouth of the canyon near the famed La Caille restaurant to Alta’s Wildcat base area, rising about 3,000 vertical feet.
During off-peak times, trains could make “whistle stops” at recreational destinations other than the Snowbird and Alta, such as the White Pine trailhead and Lisa Falls.
The Stadler team outlined two potential alignments. One travels along the north edge — or uphill side — of the highway and the other along the south side, closer to the creek. The cost of installing a single track with sidings would be $345 million for the north-side alignment, and $267 million for south side of the road, according to Stadler’s consultant Newell Jensen.
The north-side option would be more costly because it passes through various avalanche paths, necessitating the need to construct sheds to keep the track free of slide debris, Jensen said. The southern alignment, by contrast, would skirt around all but the White Pine slide path.
“There’s a possibility that there would be an avalanche shed in that particular location,” Jensen told the commission. “Other than that, this line can stay relatively free of avalanche sheds.”
These cost estimate were far lower than those projected by UDOT, whose analysis places the rail away from the existing highway. By contrast, the Stadler proposal incorporates roadway in places where it has been widened to three lanes.
“We took advantage of a reduced existing roadway prism to keep the cost of our concept down,” Jensen said, “the philosophy being that the rail system can take a lot of the carrying capacity of the highway, so there’s not as much need for additional passing lanes.”
Total costs include an additional $30 million for a 1,500-stall parking structure near La Caille and five trains at $62 million.
Electrifying the line, which is necessary to integrate it with TRAX, would cost $81 million. Then tying into TRAX via 9400 South would cost yet another $400 million, for a total price tag around $1 billion.
More canyon crowding?
Becker is not alone in wondering whether the high-capacity transit options under consideration could just wind up making Little Cottonwood even more crowded and necessitate massive parking structures near its mouth.
“Our concern is that we’re looking at basically a fully functioning road, plus another 3,000 to 5,000 per hour [riding trains or gondolas]. You could conceivably surpass the canyon’s capacity in just a few hours under some of these options,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of the environmental group Save Our Canyons. “You can’t really separate land use and transportation. What do these high-capacity options do in terms of driving development in these canyons? That’s our primary consideration, the numbers of people and the amount of development that those people will require.”
Save Our Canyons has been pushing for expanded bus service, but the group could get behind rail if it eliminates all but essential vehicle traffic in the canyon and connects to regional transit, according to Fisher.
Alta Mayor Harris Sondak was alarmed that the train’s pathway would virtually brush against various homes in a neighborhood situated along the creek between the two ski areas.
“I don’t have a great sense of how it goes up the Bypass Road and through to the Peruvian,” said Sondak, who serves on the commission. “My concern is how is this going to come into my town. A train going by someone’s home every 10 minutes is going to piss them off.”
To avoid running the line past homes, the line could terminate at Snowbird Village and Alta-bound skiers could travel the last mile by shuttle bus or gondola. Or the rail could be tunneled under town. That’s what the Swiss would do.