Friday, 13 July 2012

DENVER Light Rail

In the last few days, 9-11 July 2012, I had the chance to explore Denver's light rail system on my first stopover on this year's U.S. trip taking me primarily to the West Coast. Here are a few personal observations, as usual seen through my always critical European eyes.

I came in on a 5-hour flight from New York City, and the first public transport I encountered was the underground train at DIA (Denver International Airport), a rubber-tyred shuttle between the different terminals of the huge airport. As the airport won't be connected to the city by train before 2016, I took a Supershuttle to my hotel. RTD, the Denver transport agency, operates specially priced SkyRide buses, but they are rather infrequent, even towards downtown, and more so on a Sunday, when I arrived.

The overall impression of the light rail system is quite positive. As of now, it only reaches the southern suburbs, but in spring 2013, a western leg will be added to the system. The northern suburbs, however, will eventually be served by 'commuter railways' and I do not understand why this type of railway was chosen, which will not allow through operation between light rail and suburban rail (I prefer this term as it implies a more all-day regular service!); these lines will be electrified and are not planned to share tracks with freight or Amtrak services, so in fact no need to build them to heavy rail specifications. The travel speed of heavy rail trains may be slightly higher, but this can hardly compensate the lack of a uniform integrated system. So someone may be able to explain why the decision was for 'commuter rail'?

Light Rail routes

Back to light rail, the system features what you would expect of a modern light rail system, with a train at least every 15 minutes during off-peak on all branches, and additional peak-hour trains. The C line does not operate at certain off-peak hours, and from Lincoln it's the E or the F line running at certain times. The Union Station branch is only served every 15 minutes even during peak hours, but will also receive the W line in 2013.

Through the downtown area, trains run on-street, but segregated from car traffic on a special lane (which in fact runs in the opposite direction to road traffic). So interferences with vehicular traffic only occur at intersections (but car drivers seem to be very respectful and don't block the intersections). There is a rather long wait where trains cross a major road between Colfax at Auraria station and the built-over Theatre District/Convention Center station.

Instead of establishing mixed car/rail operation on the northern leg to 30th & Downing, a single-track alignment was chosen, but this seems to be a bit of a bottleneck. At least on my trip we had to wait for almost 10 minutes for this section to be cleared by the incoming train, and there is no passing loop on the way, instead a high number of stops (compared to the rest of the network!) which keeps this section busy even longer. Other sections were mostly built alongside railway corridors or on unused railway routes purchased by RTD, or alongside motorways, so these are largely grade-separated allowing high speeds, especially as distances between stations are often very long. At level crossings, the horn is blown like on freight trains, but on the long outer branches there are hardly any level crossings, instead trains have dedicated flyovers or underpasses to avoid at-grade junctions.

The only fully grade-separated junction is that south of Southmoor, with a full wye (the south to east links were used for several years by the G line). Closer to downtown, however, the junction west of Colfax at Auraria station used to be a wye (triangular) junction, but now the northern leg of the triangle was removed. Why??? In the same style, the new junction just south of Auraria West Campus for the new branch to JeffCo (W line) does not have a southern leg, so trains will not be able to continue towards the cross-downtown route. Why??? I cannot comprehend why the option was not left open to adjust routes at a later stage by building these track connections now. The new western line would probably get many more passengers if trains went alternately to Union Station and 16th & California (as this is where it all happens). Union Station, however, is at present in the middle of nowhere and it will take a few years still until the huge Union Station interchange will be finished, but even then the primary shopping area will be around the southeastern section of the 16th Street Mall. With the decision to build the northern lines as 'commuter rail', the Union Station branch is left a bit without a real end, so my proposal would be to create a circle/loop along 20th Street or Park Avenue West to link up with the other lines. This way, the future Union Station interchange (which includes an underground bus terminal as well as a large station for commuter rail and Amtrak) would also be accessible from the eastern side, and not only by the frequent and crowded free Mall Shuttle buses. A loop operation would also be useful to serve the many large venues along it, like the Coors or Pepsi stadiums, and the Sports Authority Mile High Field, all of which must generate large crowds when games are on.

Interestingly, as it is not so common on light rail systems, all termini except 30th & Downing have reversing sidings, so trains always arrive on one track and depart from the other.

Light Rail trains

Normally 3-car trains can be seen, although 2 cars would be enough during off-peak hours, and during the peak, even 4-car trains are in service (they are so long that the intersection at 19th Street & California cannot be cleared when they loop around to Stout Street)! The trains are air-conditioned, and have acoustic as well as visual station and destination announcements. With air-conditioning installed, it is surprising that all doors are opened by the driver at all stations, I guess passengers should be able to open doors by themselves, this way the heat is kept out.

RTD only uses one type of train, the Siemens SD160 as seen in other North American light rail cities and basically identical to the second-generation stock in San Diego. These trains are high-floor, but stop at stations with very low platforms so a climb of several steps is required for everyone. For people with limited mobility, a short high platform accessible via a ramp is available at the front of each platform to allow level boarding. To do so, however, the driver still needs to get out of his cabin, fold down a board to bridge the gap between train and platform, let the passenger in and out, and fold it in again – quite a time-consuming procedure! RTD has two generations of the same rolling stock, hardly to be distinguished, only by the outward swinging plug doors on the newer models vs. folding doors on the older, and a slightly different livery, i.e. blue stripes on the newer cars instead of yellow/orange/red on the original stock. The question is why did RTD not follow San Diego's example and gradually change to low-floor cars? Level access should not only be provided for people with special needs, but for everyone as it is simply more comfortable and speeds up the overall passenger alighting and boarding! Many people travel with trolleys or rolling suitcases, all these plus the not so sporting ones would get in and out in much less time. So the decision to order more old-fashioned high-floor vehicles in 2008 (they also look rather old-fashioned inside; all delivered by now) is a clear negative point for Denver, having in mind that the first Siemens Avanto S70 was delivered to San Diego in as early as 2004! Possibly these trains would also be available with a high-level front door, so there wouldn't be a confusion about whether a high-floor or low-floor train is coming next and wheelchair passengers, for example, could wait on the raised platform just like they do now.


Another option would be to convert the entire system eventually into a high-floor system, but I guess this will never happen as the stations would require too much rebuilding (unless the tracks could be lowered), with most of them having roof structures etc. hard to adapt. In the downtown area many would probably consider 100 m high platforms too obtrusive. Let's hope that the new 'commuter rail' stock, which is based on Philadelphia's latest stock, will have proper level access with high platforms.

Light Rail stations

The stations are all in good shape, quite appealing and with public art on display in many places and even equipped with modern next-train indicators (which sometimes showed trains two hours later...). Platforms are very low, probably just about 20 cm, so passengers cross the tracks at any point, and as a result trains enter the stations at quite low speed making all sorts of warning sounds (bells & horn). All stations have some sort of shelter, mostly a longer roof. In the city centre, the pavement actually functions as the 'platform' with the stopping area being indicated by a yellow stripe. The platform length occupies a full block!

The use of existing railway or motorway corridors to build light rail at a lower price results in stations often being located in areas not exactly central to the served neighbourhoods. Instead most stations boast a large car-park and connecting buses. On the southeastern branch, most stations are linked to the other side of the motorway by long footbridges, although some stations like Nine Mile are accessed via a rather dark though spacious underpass. All stations seem to be fully accessible with lifts or ramps, to enter trains on wheelchairs or with prams, the mini-high platform at the front of the train has to be used. If I remember correctly, the only 'metro-style' stations (i.e passengers do not cross the tracks) are Colorado (in a trench, though with a restricted possibility to cross the tracks), Louisiana/Pearl, Southmoor, Dayton and Nine Mile (the latter two with island platforms in the median of a motorway). The long distances between stations in the outer areas result in a high travel speed, at the same time one gets the impression that many areas are passed without stopping. TOD (transit-oriented development) is now a big word across the USA, and new developments can be seen around many stations, notably Englewood where the station is well integrated into a new town centre.

Stations and trains appear to be a safe place, although I did feel a bit uncomfortable at Colorado station with the kind of people hanging around there. Generally, hardly any security staff is visible, which I guess is a good sign, although trains have video surveillance. Bus drivers are not hidden behind a plastic wall like in London or like we would want it even in Berlin sometimes.

Fare system

Whereas fares for buses are charged rather by type of service than distance, the light rail system is divided into four fare zones (A-D), with a local (2 zones), express (3 zones) and regional (4 zones) fare available. Only County Line and Lincoln stations are in zone D. A day pass including buses is available for these three fare stages, too, but although all stations are equipped with ticket vending machines, these passes are only available from service centres at the downtown bus stations or from the tourist office! Bus drivers mostly showed a surprised face when they had to punch them. So why are they not available from machines?? The price for 2 zones corresponds more or less to 3 separate bus fares (2.25 USD). Free transfer between buses and light rail is available with an old-fashioned transfer paper ticket. So to explore the entire light rail system, you'll need a 'Regional Day Pass' for 14 USD. There are occasional ticket inspections on the trains, on buses you need to show your ticket to the driver.

Other urban transport

The above-mentioned Mall Shuttle along 16th Street Mall is a busy and free transport option. It links the bus station at Civic Center near the State Capitol and the museum area to the cross-downtown light rail at California and Stout Streets, to the underground Market Street bus station and to the Union Station light rail terminus. These battery-powered buses (I still have to investigate how they are actually charged) run every 1-2 minutes. Probably because it would consume too much of their power, they have no air-conditioning. They stop at every street corner, making hop-on hop-off easy. My proposal would be to extend some of these buses to the museum area, known as the Golden Triangle.

But this is about the only bus service I can approve. Although printed schedules and even a bus map are available, the entire network seems insufficient and outdated. RTD operates a rather old bus fleet with mostly NABI high-floor buses, similar to those you might remember from Western Europe 20 years ago. They are air-conditioned, though, which is nice. Without wanting to offend anyone, but like the buses also many drivers are of a rather advanced age. Bus stops can be identified as such by a small red/brown board, which even displays which line passes there, but that's about it. With many lines operating in near downtown areas only approximately hourly (yes, departure times are irregular and even then there may be alternating routes!), a posted timetable would be a good option at all stops (it is posted at selected stops!). The small sign, however, shows a stop number and a telephone number, so you can call them and ask for the next bus. I haven't tried that, but the link to individual stops on Google Maps works fine and shows the next departures. I tried that from my hotel and was positively surprised that the bus came on the minute!

All in all, the bus system seems to be maintained only for those who for some reason cannot afford to go by car, whereas the light rail trains are also busy with white-collar workers going to their downtown offices.

RTD Regional Transportation District (Official Website)


  1. Ah, Denver, my hometown - the 40-year dream of a rapid transit system is finally becoming reality - but as you found, there are a number of disappointments. Great review and assessment - here are some responses to your questions.

    Commuter vs. Light Rail - I don’t know the exact reason for the decision for “commuter rail” for the metro area’s northern tier and light rail for the southern tier, but I suspect it stems from the availability of existing railroads to operate lines east to Aurora and the airport, and north to Boulder and Longmont. These longer routes were also probably thought to be less appropriate for light rail operations. While using light rail-type equipment over long distances (tram trains) has been extensively proven in places like Karlsruhe, this is “uncharted territory” for North America, and U.S. transit planning is slow to adopt innovative ideas. The geographical split between light rail and commuter rail (instead of the typical overlay) is awkward, but does allow both to sufficiently scale as far as storage and maintenance and requirements go (maintaining a fleet of commuter rail equipment for just one line wouldn’t make much sense).

    30th & Downing Leg - this was part of the original “demonstration” line and there were complications integrating the line with the surrounding disadvantaged neighborhood, and so a number of compromises were made. It’s planned to be extended to meet the East Line north of downtown, so the current bottleneck will even get worse unless an additional track is built.

    Rolling Stock - RTD seems to be the only U.S. light rail operator hanging on to outdated high-floor equipment with steps. Other cities like Dallas are at least procuring low-floor cars to mix with high-floor ones. Even as other cities have ordered newer Siemens models with a sleeker and more up-to-date appearance (i.e. Denver’s rival Salt Lake City), RTD has clung to the boxy old design which would have been contemporary in the ’80s when the idea of light rail in Denver was first gaining traction, but is now hopelessly clunky. I’m afraid the new commuter rail equipment will be no better, being bought “off the shelf” to match Philadelphia’s (Denver wouldn’t want to be the only U.S. city with a heavy rail train that looked like it was designed in the 21st century, would it?) This unnecessarily conservative mindset reinforces the image of transit as second-class.

    Freeway Stations - As you describe, long pedestrian bridges connecting across the ten (10) lanes of the I-25 freeway characterize the Southeast Corridor E, F, and H lines. RTD may have set a record with the bridge at Dry Creek Station stretching about 250 meters from end-to-end! One must commend the attempt to connect both sides of the freeway to each station, when most of the stations are located on one side (a decision could have been made to facilitate access only on one side). However, one thinks of the cost of maintaining such long pieces of infrastructure that have little other utility than to provide access to the station platforms. As for security issues - the bridges look good now, but could easily fall prey to vandalism. All the transparency and lighting in the world won’t help much if you are victimized at midspan 100 m from the nearest exit, while the only “onlookers” are speeding 10 m below you at 120 km/h. Despite the best design intentions, it simply remains a hostile, auto-oriented environment.
    (to be continued)

  2. One peculiarity is the County Line Station, located adjacent to the southern metro area’s premier shopping mall, Park Meadows. Initially, the mall blocked any idea of providing access to the station (upscale shoppers don’t use transit, after all). The park-and-ride and access would occur exclusively on the other side of the freeway, forcing everyone to cross the pedestrian bridge. The mall eventually relented, but not without a rather cumbersome intervention: upon exiting toward the mall, light rail riders were faced with signage pointing them to a machine dispensing exit tickets allowing them to pass through a turnstile, then navigate through the sea of parking standing between that point and the mall entrance (no direct path provided). Upon their return, riders could only re-enter the station with the ticket they had used to exit. All this to prevent light rail riders from using the mall parking lot as station parking. Fortunately, on my visit there last fall, I found the ticket dispensing machines were disabled and the turnstiles opened - with only signage enforcing the “no station parking at the mall” policy. Apparently having unencumbered access to a rail station is not the worst thing that can happen to a major retail destination. This just goes to show how backward attitudes can be toward transit and how parking is king in suburban America.

    Fare system - Like you, I am also perplexed by the fare system - but it is built for commuters, and not for tourists, after all. I found the best value to be the 10-Ride Ticket Book, which I validated at the light rail stations or fed into the farebox on buses, and just continued to travel until the ticket/transfer expired. Though not as convenient as a day pass, a day’s worth of travel can be accommodated with three or four tickets, at a comparable price. Here again, UTA in Salt Lake City does it better than its sister city - UTA’s ticket vending machines accept credit cards and sell day passes (RTD’s don’t do either), and UTA allows you to pay a fare by simply tapping your credit card upon boarding a bus or entering a light rail station (dispensing altogether with a special “smart card” to clutter your wallet, which Denver - way behind other U.S. cities - is still only piloting).

    Buses - RTD actually had a very modern fleet in the late ’80s and early ’90s, buying buses from the American subsidiary of German manufacturer Neoplan, which set up manufacturing in southern Colorado. Unfortunately this venture folded in 2006. The bus system has its limitations, but one must give RTD credit for considerable expansion of service following light rail extensions. There’s been a clear increase in service coverage and frequency in areas feeding into the light rail stations, so that even though some may no longer have a one-seat bus ride, still more people have a convenient bus/rail ride that they didn’t have before.

    The 15/15L East Colfax and 0/0L South Broadway routes must have escaped your attention - these services operate around-the-clock, mostly using articulated buses, with combined frequencies of every five (5) minutes in the peak periods on the 0/0L and ALL DAY on the 15/15L to Denver’s largest neighbor, Aurora. This is obviously better than the branches of the light rail system, and these routes have ridership you’d have to go to the West Coast or Chicago to beat. This shows how well transit works when it directly serves walkable destinations - light rail was contemplated for both Broadway and Colfax Avenue, but the disruption of construction, along with minimal potential for speed gains, pushed the light rail alignment choices to railroad and freeway corridors. Yet despite the high ridership of these routes, it lies below the threshold for an underground solution (for now). If Denver ever has an subway, though, it is most likely to be under one of these two streets.


    1. Hi Ryan,

      thanks for your comments and additions. I did get off at County Line to have lunch at the mall (quite a stylish mall...) and wondered what these kind of open ticket gates were for. Another weird thing at that station is that the western elevator tower is not linked to the eastern bridge across the freeway you describe, so passengers from the mall take gthe elevator up to track level, cross the outbound track to get to the platform and from their would have to take another elevator up to get to the other side of the freeway. But with your explanations I can understand why it is not a properly designed layout.

      As for the single-track section to 30th & Downing, I hope they will add a second track, even if it is in the roadway, as single-track sections only busy lines are always crap. The only line with significant single-track sections that works well, as far as my personal experience goes, is line m1 in Lausanne!

  3. This is great. Now that public transport stations are accessible to those who are in wheelchairs, it would be much easier for them to commute. We would not need to hire cars or drive our own because of this.

  4. Commuter rail was chosen for the northern routes for safety reasons. Originally RTD had planned to use light rail throughout the planned system, but the railroad companies who own the corridors squashed those plans. A few years ago a coal train derailed between the Littleton and Oxford stations during a snow storm. With low visibility conditions, a light rail train collided with the wrecked train shortly thereafter. There was also a worse accident in California around the same time that happened under similar circumstances. Fearing additional litigation, BNSF and Union Pacific Would only allow heavy rail to be built on the same right of way as freight traffic, even if passengers were carried on an entirely separate track. I believe RTD plans to operate these lines with the same quality of service (7.5 minute headways) as light rail, only with different technology.

    I also believe that RTD chose to stay with SD-160 trains to keep the fleet consistent and maintenance costs low. Mechanics and drivers only need to be trained on one type of vehicle and fewer spare parts need to be stored. Budget airlines like Southwest and Ryan Air have been using this strategy for years. Sadly, We probably won't see new trains until after 2024 when the oldest cars in the fleet reach the end of their life cycle.

    The last sentence of your article perfectly describes the state of transit services (and all other public services) in the United States. :(

    1. Thanks, Brian, for these explanations. So is the ban of LRT alongside freight lines just a UP and BNSF issue or is it backed by federal law? I'm now wondering as I study San Diego's University extension which is planned to run alongside the existing heavily used rail corridor to L.A., with both freight and lots of passenger trains, and isn't that also a BNSF line now?

    2. It's just UP/BNSF (although CSX, on the East Coast, can be just as bad). They have no backing in law.

      The line in San Diego is NOT a BNSF line. It is *operated* by BNSF but it is *owned* by the local governments, so BNSF has no say in what they do with it.

  5. I recently attended the Electric Railroaders' Association Convention in Denver (and in Salt Lake City). You might be interested to know that it is possible to buy day passes from the TVM's in the system's light rail stations. However, the procedure is well hidden. The opening screen in essence asks you where you want to go, and once you have selected a destination, presents you with a list of the various tickets that will get you there from where you stand. The selections include day passes, 6 hour passes, and one-way tickets, and the passes are not restricted to the station pair you have selected. For example: I wanted to tour the new W line starting from Union Station, so I selected Jeffco (end of the W line) as my destination then selected a reduced-fare 6 hour pass. Later in the day, I had occasion to ride an RTD airport bus from the airport back to downtown Denver. By showing the pass to the driver, I saved $4.00 of the normal reduced fare of $5.50, even though the trip from the airport to downtown is totally outside the trip from Union Station to Jeffco.

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