Since it opened a little more than a year ago, Denver’s airport rail lines, known as the A Line, has had a serious safety problem: the crossing gates aren’t reliable. Now Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) claims it has solved the problem, which is transit-speak for they haven’t solved the problem; they’ve just given up.
According to Denver Transit Partners, the private consortium that built and operates the line, “the problem with the crossing technology is impossible to fix.” Instead of fixing it, they’ve gotten a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration to allow them to run the trains anyway–provided they have human flaggers at every crossing, which costs about $6 million a year.
Supposedly the crossing gate system is incompatible with the positive train control that the federal government also requires. The Antiplanner doesn’t claim to be an expert on railroad signal technology, but the basic principles behind positive train control were developed more than 100 years ago by Frank Sprague, the electrical genius who also developed the first workable electric streetcar, the first electric rapid transit system, and the first high-speed electric elevators.
After Sprague developed his system, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered every major railroad in the country to install it on at least one division. Since those railroads all had plenty of grade crossings with crossing gates, they must have figured out how to make the automatic train control systems compatible with automatic crossing gates.
This is just one more example of the rail-at-any-cost stupidity of the transit industry in general and RTD in particular. The alternatives analysis for the Denver airport line found that electric trains were by far the least cost-effective alternative, with buses being greatly superior at both costing less and doing more to relieve congestion, with Diesel trains being somewhat better than electric. Naturally, RTD picked the most expensive alternative, because it was someone else’s money, so who cares?
RTD has since installed the Flatiron Flyer, a bus-rapid transit line between downtown Denver and Boulder that is faster than the A line, cost far less, and doesn’t have any problems with grade crossings. While highway lanes for the Flatiron Flyer cost about $300 million compared with more than $1 billion for the A line, the highway lanes are open to auto traffic with tolls set to make sure they never get congested. Those tolls help to pay the cost and the lanes do far more to relieve congestion than a rail transit line ever could (which is why the alternatives analysis for the A line found that buses were better than trains).
Using the same technology as the A line, RTD and Denver Transit Partners are building another rail line that will be called the G line. It was supposed to open in October 2016, but–surprise–the crossing gates don’t work, so now it now appears the opening may be delayed until sometime in 2018. If only there were a more modern technology than trains that wouldn’t have this problem.