Even as light-rail lines promise to revolutionize transportation within the West’s metropolitan areas, longer commuter rails could connect these far-flung cities in ways they have not since railroad’s glory days a century ago.

Unlike light rail, which uses overhead electrical lines, commuter-rail trains are pulled by diesel-powered locomotives. Although they are slower to start and stop, they cost less to operate. They can also run on existing rail lines, meaning that cities can often avoid spending billions on new track; they just buy passenger cars and build new stations, and they’re off and running.

Albuquerque has talked about commuter rail for more than 30 years. Now, prodded by Gov. Bill Richardson, D, the idea is finally pulling out of the station. Early next year, the Rail Runner Express will start chugging along 46 miles of existing track paralleling the Rio Grande, providing an alternative to the increasingly snarled Interstate 25.

The rail is needed, according to regional planners, because metropolitan Albuquerque’s population, now 740,000, is projected to surpass 1 million in the next 25 years.

"We are seeing a lot of the signs — especially related to traffic congestion — that Denver saw 20 years ago," says Chris Blewett, planning director with the Mid-Regional Council of Governments. "What we’re trying to do is get out ahead of some of this stuff, especially when it comes to having transportation choices."

Rail Runner is just the beginning of Richardson’s transportation vision. By 2008, he wants the line extended 60 miles north, to Santa Fe. An estimated 15,000 commuters travel daily between the pricey state capital and blue-collar Albuquerque. While some grouse that New Mexico would be better served by bus transportation or bigger highways, a state study estimates that six-laning I-25 from Albuquerque to Santa Fe would cost $514 million, but stay ahead of congestion for only 20 years. In contrast, planners figure a new rail route would cost between $157 million and $352 million.

Eventually, New Mexico officials envision passenger rail links south to El Paso, Texas, and north along Colorado’s Front Range all the way to Cheyenne, Wyo. It’s an idea that sounds perfectly feasible to rail proponents and political leaders along the ever-more-congested Front Range.

In Denver, commuter rail is included in the FasTracks expansion, with trains set to radiate to Boulder and Denver International Airport in 10 years. Approval of FasTracks has given proponents of a commuter-rail system from Pueblo to Greeley new credibility, says Jon Esty, who heads the Colorado Rail Passenger Association.

Cheyenne, 95 miles north of Denver along Interstate 25, also wants to be part of the discussion. "From our perspective, Cheyenne is part of the Front Range," says Randy Burns, executive director of Cheyenne Leads, an economic development group. A commuter rail line would enhance the considerable economic ties between the cities. "Denver is the economic center of gravity for the Intermountain West," Burns says.

He contends that the shifting of freight shipping from trains to trucks has crowded interstate highways and left train tracks, at least in some cases, underused. The time to get on board with commuter rail is now, he says: "If you wait until I-25 is a parking lot, you’re too late."

Funding for commuter rail has been scarce in recent decades, but Bob Briggs, a former state legislator from Denver’s northwest suburbs, points out that the new federal transportation bill provides more for mass transit than has ever been allocated. He believes Colorado, with its proven commitment to rail, stands a good chance of getting federal aid.

Meanwhile, other Western cities are also planning commuter rail lines. In Utah, governments along the Wasatch Front are working on 44 miles of commuter-line rail, scheduled to debut in 2008. The line will eventually extend for 120 miles, serving the communities that house 80 percent of Utah’s population.