In Its Fight to Become a Global Transit Hub, Denver Opens a New Rail Line

Denver’s soon-to-finish A Line service suggest the city is ready for takeoff.

Nothing quite compares to sprinting through an airport, a rolling suitcase nipping at your heels, sweat beading on your brow, only to learn at the gate that you missed your connection. In Denver, a city with policy goals as loft as its foot of the Rockies elevation, connections of another sort have been missing—but are just a few rivets shy of completion.

Due to run in spring 2016, a dedicated rail link between downtown and Denver International Airport is nearly complete. The trains, with a capacity of 209 people, will travel at up to 79 miles per hour. It is the latest high-profile airport rail project to be realized recently in North America, following the launch this past summer of Toronto’s Union-Pearson Express. But whereas that project sought to ameliorate highway gridlock between Pearson Airport and downtown, Denver’s 28-mile A Line quite literally carries the aspirations of an entire city fighting to be counted among the worlds great transit hubs.

“There’s a movement among these ‘airport cities,’” says Kap Malik, principal at international architecture firm Gensler. “The thinking behind them is airports can be catalysts for growth in all sorts of areas of the city—retail, housing, cultural spaces. They’re conduits. They’re generators.”

Malik and his colleagues have enjoyed a commanding view of the A Line project from very close range. As the firm retained to design the airport’s 519-room Westin hotel, Gensler has seen its role expand to master planner of the entire airport terminus of the A Line. (The line will have eight station stops in total, including six “Park-n-Rides.”) Its remit extends from the cocktails being mixed in the hotel lounges down to the train platforms where travelers, employees, and even curious Denver residents will disembark.

Malik describes an unprecedented opportunity. “It may be the only project in the world where civic, hospitality, and transit [design] are so seamlessly integrated,” he says. The bulky, bird-shaped Westin, which opens this month, anchors the South Terminal Redevelopment Program, an expansive undertaking that will see the airport add more flight capacity and mixed-use spaces in coming years. The relative proximity of these pieces, and the A Line delivering passengers literally into its heart, makes the project distinctive.

“There are a lot of projects where you’ll have the airport on one side, the hotel on the other, transport on another,” Malik says. “The integration is unparalleled. Maybe Munich comes the closest.”

Also distinctive is the name that was once attached to the South Terminal development: Santiago Calatrava, he of grandly conceived if often shoddily realized civic projects, who backed out in 2011. Citing fundamental design flaws, Gensler, working closely with conceptual engineering firm Arup, reimagined the transit hall topped by two curving, honeycomb-like canopies, which would provide shelter for the A Line at its terminus as well as for the people mover that would pass among terminals. The uncanny thing is how well, given the upheaval, the seams are hidden. “Calatrava’s project was all arches; the project was much larger,” Malik says. “So we worked with Arup on the transit hall and canopies to come down to two points, and that—aside from the hotel itself—has become the defining characteristic of the whole project.”

If travelers can will themselves away from taking in Gensler’s hulking creating, they may make their flight—with time to spare. At least the trains will be on time.

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