The University of Colorado’s A Line is getting an F: After months of headaches, delays and denials, last week RTD withheld more than $800K from the contracting firm hired to run the four-month-old "train to the plane" route...for the next 34 years. But the A Line is just one of the problems in RTD’s train system. Let's count down ten ways the trains could use some effective conducting.
Let’s start with the biggie: There exists a reasonable expectation that trains will, you know, arrive and depart on time. They're how we get to work, they're how we organize our day, they're how some people defend the legacy of Mussolini. But trains across the system have failed to meet this expectation, and there's no reason to believe that this problem will be fixed or even subside any time soon. RTD's response to the various delays has largely been misdirection and bluster. This strategy might work in campaigns for the presidency, but not so much for the nuts-and-bolts concerns of mass transit.
Lightning is sort of a strange problem for a rail system, isn’t it? It’s vaguely biblical, as if the train went offline due to a plague of locusts or hordes of frogs. But despite the odds, lightning actually struck the A Line twice — in May and again in June, causing a complete shutdown of the route and forcing passengers at one point to exit the stranded train cars and traverse a fifty-foot-high bridge in order to catch a bus to get them (very late) to their destinations.
8. Crossing Guards
The challenge here isn't retirees with too much time on their hands and an orange vest handy, but the actual mechanized crossing gates that separate road from tracks. At least they’re supposed to be mechanized. Unfortunately, the gates have demonstrated a propensity for dropping when there’s no train coming — or worse, failing to fully lower before a train enters the intersection. Sort of the opposite of what a “guard” is supposed to do, right?
7. Switching and Signaling
It’s not just the A Line that suffers from issues with these small but vital components to the routing of the trains. It happens on other lines as well. (The A Line just gets the most press, because it’s the biggest mess.) The entire system suffers from glitches; there are regular delays and schedule snafus that can be attributed to problems like these, and they can cause anything from significantly slower trains to outright stalled schedules. Not the best way for anyone to start their day — or not be able to start their day, as the case may be.
Unlike the pseudo-science that Back to the Future taught us, fueling a power-hungry vehicle like a train or a DeLorean isn’t just a simple matter of timing a lightning strike to said vehicle traveling at 88 miles per hour in order to take advantage of nature’s own gigawatts. Rather, it’s a delicate system of grids and overhead lines and attachments that connect train and line and keep everything moving. But sometimes the lines snap, or the attachments break, or there’s just not enough juice between stations to keep it all going in a forward direction. And then you get stuck, and it only feels like you’re in the 1950s, trying to avoid disappearing from reality while being hit on by your mom.
Every so often — which is too often — the recorded “stop” language of the trains will get off-cycle, and the wrong stop will be announced. It's not a huge problem if you’re a longtime rider of light rail and know your stop, but it's seriously confusing if you’re new to that route (or worse, a visitor to the city). Would it really be so hard to have the train operator actively call out stops, as they do on subways in other metropolitan cities?
4. Free Rides
I’ve been riding the light-rail lines for over a year now, and I have been asked exactly three times to show my pass. This includes both low-population rides (like the D line from 30th and Downing to the Auraria campus in the late morning, when it’s me and maybe two other passengers in the whole car) and high-density rides (the E line back from a Fiddler’s Green concert, when it’s standing-room only). What this has produced is a system that is ripe for abuse and effectively free. The handful of times that I’ve seen an officer board a train in order to check tickets, there has always been a sudden exodus of passengers at the same stop. Some of those people — at least some — are getting off the train because they don’t have tickets to show, and it's safe to assume that they’ll just wait for the next train, re-board, and go on their merry ticketless ways.
3. Police Presence
Ensuring that people pay for their ride is the job of police officers, oddly. Instead of hiring conductors to take tickets, RTD depends on cops to ask for tickets or passes in random fashion, which is clearly not working (and has to be one of the shittiest duties to which a Denver cop can be assigned). The police on these routes are overworked and too busy…and that leads to our next point.
2. A Complete Inattention to Rules
With this remarkably low police presence, the trains are on a sort of law-abiding and etiquette honors system. If you’ve been on light rail recently, for example, you’ve seen the signs everywhere that say riders are not supposed to put their feet on the seats. And really, it’s a good rule; no one wants to sit in the place where someone just wiped their feet. But as with all rules on the trains, it’s completely up to you whether you want to obey. The same goes for loud music, or not blocking the aisles, or arguments that end in knife-play. It’s like Lord of the Flies, except no one’s holding the conch.
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Many of the digital signs currently up at the train stops show what’s supposed to happen with the arriving train, not what is actually happening. This isn’t helpful communication; it’s adding insult to injury. (We know the damn train is supposed to be here at 4:27, but it’s not, and we’re waiting — so it would be helpful to know when it’s actually going to arrive.) Associated with this very basic signage issue is a complete inability on the part of RTD to notify passengers waiting for a train that for some reason that train isn’t coming; no warnings pop up on the ticketing terminals, on the signage at the stop, or anywhere else. This is unconscionable, especially given Denver weather in the winter and the technologies available to RTD. Even a simple loudspeaker at every stop to allow messages to be communicated verbally would help — and that was invented by Alexander Graham Freakin’ Bell. It might be a good goal for RTD to catch up to the nineteenth century, at the very least.