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.
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.
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.