Fastracks Progress: Overhead Catenary System at Denver Union Station

Since I was a kid, overhead wires have always made my infrastructure senses tingle. This all makes sense because I grew up very close to these wonderful pylons running right down East Jewell Avenue in Aurora.


Source: Google Street View

Some, like myself, don’t mind seeing overhead wires, whereas others aren’t so fond of the visual clutter. But, enough about your friendly DenverUrbanism contributor’s personal childhood and opinions. Denver’s new visual infrastructure comes right to Downtown’s backyard: Union Station.  Let’s take a look at what’s going on under the commuter rail canopy!

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Installation of the overhead catenary system under the canopy has commenced, adding the last piece to making this beautiful station fully operational.

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Can you imagine how great this view will look with the new commuter rail trains running through it next year?


The real exciting visual, however, is just north of the canopy. These large, overhead catenary wires mean serious business and will serve three commuter rail lines pulling into Union Station!

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This post might seem silly and filled with my likings towards overhead wire systems but remember, without these systems in place, our commuter rail system would cease to exist.


By | 2016-12-27T18:34:59+00:00 June 8, 2015|Categories: Infrastructure, Transit, Urban Design|Tags: , |10 Comments


  1. Nash June 8, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Great report, Ryan — and your wonderful photos, as usual! I, too, can’t wait to see that airport train arriving at Union Station next year.

    As for the Washington Post sidebar on overhead wires, I can assure you that this typical NIMBY response to the DC streetcar system is no surprise to me, after living across the Potomac in Northern Virginia for ten years, and riding the Metro subways daily into Washington. It’s the best subway system in the nation — but it took 60 years to build, due to local resistance every step of the way!

    Here’s a perfect example of the Washington Tail Wagging the Dog: When they replaced the old bridge on I-95 over the Potomac (busiest highway on the East Coast), Northern Virginia and Maryland entities each got 7 seats on the bridge board — with the City of Alexandria getting an extra, fifteenth seat on the board.

    Bridge designers proposed an elegant, classical high bridge, tall enough to accommodate big military ships heading into DC piers. The Maryland contingent cast 7 votes in favor, and the Northern Virginia side cast 7 votes against, favoring a low-profile DRAW BRIDGE — which has to be raised every time a sailboat with a 20-foot mast approaches the bridge!

    The Alexandria Hysterical Society (my term) joined with Virginia, saying a tall bridge would be “unsightly” and “out of character” with their historic town. So, after years of design and legal delays and a quadrupling of construction costs, traffic on the busiest highway between New York and Florida is stopped several times a day by a draw bridge, because a distorted sense of history is used to frustrate every step of progress in and around DC.

    I’m so glad the legal/political/cultural fight about overhead power lines for streetcars is being fought out in DC, first — before the streetcar debates get to Denver’s big streets — so that some of the nonsense that comes up in the opposition to a modern street rail system for Denver will have at least been settled, we hope.

  2. […] DenverUrbanism Nerds Out on Union Station’s Overhead Wires for Commuter Rail Lines […]

  3. ardyess June 9, 2015 at 8:56 am

    I very well may be in a minority here, but I’m one of those who thinks that yes….. overhead wires are visual clutter. I’m all for burying as much electrical cable/grid as possible. These towers/pylons that support the wires, and the wiring itself, is in many places ghastly and creates eyesore. For me, it would be fantastic if they could bury all of the electrical grid.

    From my pov, as for the trains….. ew as well. But they seem to be needed and are a vital part of the operation. Maybe there are some aesthetics that some may see in them, I know that there’s different strokes for different folks, okay. But for me, if somehow our trains were to be able to function without all of the catenary, I’d like it much better.

    Just my two cents. And we all have our tastes.

    • Nash June 9, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      ardyess, agree with you about the aesthetics of overhead wires, which are not pretty. Maybe the debate about the catenary system will drive the rail car industry to find a workable alternative. That would be great! But, again, I’m glad they’re fighting over it in DC first, rather than here — which could be a deal-killer for Denver streetcars.

      • Jerry G June 10, 2015 at 10:13 pm

        You can’t install streetcars without the use of overhead wires. Other electrified rail transit uses third rail technology, but you cannot have that in a street. The technology to make battery-powered streetcars is just not there yet. Perhaps in the future.

  4. Frank June 9, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    Super post and great pics! I love everything about Union Station and I would love to see light rail all over Denver. Can not wait for the DIA train to start running! Took a trip on Amtrak a couple weeks ago to Chicago and back and leaving from/arriving to Union Station here in Denver was fantastic. More trains!

  5. The Dirt June 9, 2015 at 11:58 pm

    …making this beautiful station fully operational…

    I see what you did there.

  6. Kevin Flynn June 11, 2015 at 9:32 am

    As long as we’re nerding out, I have been wondering who, when and why someone took it upon themselves to shift the traditional directionals of the downtown street grid. As long as I can remember, and it’s documented in city records, the numbered streets had always been referenced as running north-south, and the named streets were always said to run east-west. That’s even though the grid is a true 45-degree diagonal.

    So your description of the “real exciting visual” that occurs “north of the canopy” threw me a loop because I started to think of the 17th Street plaza on top of the bus concourse.

    I always thought the numbered streets were N-S because they connected downtown with north Denver neighborhoods, and you would use them typically to get to the north areas, whereas the named streets took you in and out of east Denver. After all, the trolley that used to operate on Larimer Street took you from Cole to Lakewood, an east-west trip.

    Anyone know when the directional references changed?

    • Ken Schroeppel June 12, 2015 at 8:43 am

      Great question, Kevin!

  7. Nathanael June 14, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    I’m glad to see the gantries going up for the overhead catenary. Not long ’till opening now, I guess…

    That’s pretty heavy-duty overhead, which I guess is to be expected for an efficient 25kV system, more usually associated with intercity rail. Trolley wire is a much slimmer construction.

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