Plan for $1 Billion Rail Line From Salt Lake City to Alta Ski Area, UT Being Considered

Martin Kuprianowicz | | Industry NewsIndustry News
A $1 billion cog railway system like the one at Pike’s Peak, CO shown above is being considered as an option to reduce traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon—home to Utah’s premier steep skiing destination resorts, Alta and Snowbird. | Photo courtesy

There’s been a lot of chit-chat in the past year about what to do with the absolutely horrific traffic congestion that plagues Little Cottonwood Canyon in the winter—home to Utah’s premier steep-skiing destination resorts, Alta and Snowbird. Even Utah’s governor Spencer Cox has been talking about it.

Improved bus service was proposed by the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC), a canyon planning board.

A gondola running up the canyon was also considered by the CWC. 

And now the idea for a nine-mile-long cog rail line is being put on the table. 

Traffic in both Big and Litte Cottonwood Canyons often looks like this on weekend powder days. | Photo courtesy KUTV

If approved, the rail line would cost an estimated $1 billion and run from the La Caille restaurant in Sandy direct to Alta Ski Area, which sees up to three million visitors a year, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that 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 who spoke with the Salt Lake Tribune in an interview.

According to Allegra, the proposed rail system could move 3,000 passengers an hour up the canyon. It would take 19 minutes to get to Snowbird and another six minutes to reach Alta. He told the Salt Lake Tribune that this would get more people up the canyon than the highway, which maxes out at getting roughly 1,000 vehicles up the canyon per hour.

But the introduction of a rail line in the canyon prompts the concern that it won’t reduce congestion but only increase it. It’s possible that it could shuttle 3,000 passengers an hour on top of the 1,000 cars already heading up the canyon. And it wouldn’t be cheap, either.

The cost of installing a single track with sidings would be somewhere north or south of $300 million, according to Stadler’s consultant Newell Jensen who spoke with the Salt Lake Tribune for an article. An additional $30 million for a 1,500-stall parking structure near La Caille and five trains for $62 million would also be needed, and if the rail line is decided to run on electricity, it would cost another $81 million. That’s not to mention the $400 million for linking the rail line with Salt Lake Valley’s TRAX electric train system, all of which equals a sum of around $1 billion, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The rail line, along with the other two proposals, raises environmental concerns for the canyon’s watershed. Canyon enthusiasts such as the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and Save Our Canyons say that these options will bring too many visitors to the already popular Little Cottonwood Canyon and ruin it.

“The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance is concerned the shiny appeal of an expensive train or gondola system may distract us from our goals or actually make things worse,” Brad Rutledge said, co-founder of the organization and current board member. “These solutions not only miss the target on making things better, but the train and gondola concepts threaten many of the things that make the Wasatch Mountains so amazing today.”

Utah’s Governor and the Central Wasatch Commission, on the other hand, believe these options would help drive tourism and economic gain for the state of Utah.

This photo shows Alta Ski Area’s Wildcat Base parking area at full capacity—a sight that’s becoming increasingly common. | Location: Alta Ski Area | Photo courtesy UDOT

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10 thoughts on “Plan for $1 Billion Rail Line From Salt Lake City to Alta Ski Area, UT Being Considered

  1. The issue is too many people trying to come up and ski. Significantly reduce the number of people coming up the canyon, don’t increase the ability to cram more people up the canyon faster. It just ruins the experience up there. Incentivize people to adopt alternate recreational opportunities elsewhere.

  2. Love the idea of a train. Switzerland has numerous areas that depend on them. Consider that the trains could be used to get ‘freight’ up the canyon and trash back out. Truck traffic could be significantly reduced. For passengers, the canyon bus could be eliminated. Extra traffic/people = more damage to watershed, the train could be used to bring waste water down the canyon to be disposed of in the valley. Electric trains would reduce the exhaust gasses of the hundreds of vehicles driving in the canyon.

    What’s not to love? The price? What does it cost to keep the current road in good repair now. Less traffic should make the road last longer. There are some who will still insist on using their vehicles on the road because the train costs too much to use. Would a toll road be crowded?

  3. Unless this rail system is underground all the way up the canyon, the gondola is still the better option. Anything that is ground level is prone to avalanche slides and should not be on the table at all. Like all the idiotic road expansion options the train will be closed during avalanche control work. Little Cottonwood canyon road is known as one of the most avalanche prone roads in the US. Its beyond me why this fact escapes those involved with this project. Every design they put on the table should be able to function while the road is closed for control work.
    Not to mention the crazy people that make up Save Our Canyons, they object to everything and are impossible to logic or reason with.

  4. Weekends are already prohibitive in LCC. Putting a railway up the canyon would just move the crowds from the roads to the lift lines. Unplug the lifts, as was done in March 2020 and crowds will subside.

  5. Pretty easy to make sure it doesn’t bring more people up the canyon. Don’t let that many people in the train or drive up. Also, make sure season passes get 1-2 randomly selected blackout days every week. There are bigger things we can complain about than days we can’t ski

  6. If you’ve every traveled around Switzerland sitting in a full panoramic windowed train car sipping beer from the ontrain restaurant you will quickly realize America has done the mountain experience ALL WRONG.

    PS Thank you Sierra Club for making it impossible to build anything cool in mountains since the 1970’s.

    1. How easy to compare to vastly different continents and land use systems, pick the one environmental group you’ve heard of and blame everything on them. So simple! Thanks, Anonymous!

      1. You clearly know little to nothing about land use and environmental regulations in the US. Congratulations. You are part of the problem.

        Continue to enjoy your overcrowded ski resorts, overcrowded polluted road systems and your overpriced unobtainable homes.

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