Denver Solves a Problem

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.


6 thoughts on “Denver Solves a Problem

  1. CapitalistRoader

    There’s plenty of room to convert the A line to bus rapid transit. Sure, without widening them the bridges could carry only one bus at a time but that could be sequenced with signaling. Since the bridge supports both the weight of the train and passengers–riding or walking–, it seems to me that the entire A line could be converted to bus service.

    Of course it would have made much more sense to widen I-70 and Peña Blvd. for a BRT/HOT/HOV lane in the first place, like the Denver/Boulder Flatiron Flyer, but better late than never. I pity those poor gate crossing guards sitting out the sun on these 90° days but worse is zero in the winter. Even a driverless bus could be programmed to come to a complete stop at each crossing, before the gates dropped, which would eliminate the human flaggers.

  2. Sandy Teal

    I suppose there is a cheap joke in there somewhere about how cars are now driving themselves in three dimensions and railroad crossings can’t work in one dimension. But there also is a lesson that technology is not magic, and it will have weaknesses and failures.

  3. prk166

    Mr. O’Toole, I suspect something else is going on here. Denver Transit Partners (DTP ) invoked force majeure. It’s a legal term saying that circumstances beyond everyone’s control have changed so drastically that the contract can’t be upheld.

    Why would DTP – the private group that stands to bring in $7.1 BILLION in payments RTD over 29 year – risk having that contact torn up? Maybe I’m not understanding the legal aspect well enough and that may not be a risk. But things aren’t all that different from now, are they? If they are all that different, why would DTP agree to them under the current contract instead of amending it?

    The call for “force majeure” felt like it’s a strategic move by DTP, not a literal calling for it. What’s their angle? Do they know they have RTD in corner? After all, RTD can’t directly take on the debts And finance costs aren’t any better today. They may be worse ( higher ). RTD isn’t going to find a better deal.

    What don’t we know about the contract between RTD and DTP that could be coming into play that DTP is maneuvering to?

  4. the highwayman

    There are numerous railway crossings in the world that work just fine. Denver has an issue with bad contractors, not that railways are bad.

    Yet you teahadi’s want to bring on Terminator. :$

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