A Reporter Rode Denver’s Airport Light Rail–And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

Here’s a heartwarming story of a man who rode Denver’s airport light rail once, and it worked for him, so now he wants everyone in his Virginia city to pay higher taxes to build light rail to the local airport in case he might want to ride it again someday. How thoughtful and touching.

Of course, there are a few problems with his story. First, what he rode wasn’t light rail, which averages about 20 miles per hour; instead, he rode a commuter train that averages 38 miles per hour. So if he manages to persuade people in Virginia to build light rail to his local airport, he will get something far inferior to what he rode in Denver.

Second, the writer is guilty of survivorship bias, which is an assumption that because something worked for him, it will work for everyone else. But the Denver airport train doesn’t work for everyone else, partly because it is unreliable and partly because transit is slow for anyone who isn’t near an airport line station.

In fact, it works for very few people. There are just 144 daily round trips between downtown Denver and the airport. Of course, people can get on the train in places other than downtown Denver, but the majority of people in the Denver area who want to go to the airport would have to first go downtown, presumably on a bus or another rail line.

Unfortunately, the Virginia writer never bothered to ask what share of air travelers take the train and Denver’s Regional Transit District hasn’t released that information. But we know that, in 2016, an average of 104,000 air travelers a day went to or from Denver International Airport. RTD says that an average of 10,256 people get on or off the train at the airport station each weekday, which is slightly less than 10 percent of air travelers. Based on the experience in other cities, a significant number of those are from the more than 30,000 airport employees. So the train probably carries between 5 and 10 percent of air travelers.

Third, the writer has no perspective on the huge cost of rail, especially since he only had to pay a tiny fraction of the cost of his ride. From downtown to the airport, Supershuttle costs $25 and Uber costs about $35. The airport train is $9, which sounds like a good deal. But Supershuttle and Uber drivers both pay gas taxes that covered virtually all of the costs of I-70 and the other highways to the airport, while train riders paid none of the $1.1 billion construction cost and only a fraction of the operating cost of the airport train.

Contrary to the above headline, you probably will believe that the Virginia writer made the same mistake that many Americans make when they ride trains in Europe. They see other people riding them and assume they are seeing a cross-section of the city or country they are visiting. They fail to find out about all the people who aren’t riding the trains and why the trains don’t work for those people. Nor do they ask who is paying for and who really benefits from all the subsidies to passenger rail transportation.

The reality is that the Denver airport line would have been a huge waste of money and should never have been built even if it hadn’t had an 89 percent cost overrun. With that overrun, Denver is basically bankrupting itself so a few people can take a train to the airport which the city nearly bankrupted itself building.

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9 thoughts on “A Reporter Rode Denver’s Airport Light Rail–And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

  1. Sandy Teal

    Any talk about Denver International Airport has to consider that they decided to build a huge national hub airport way out in the middle of nowhere 25 miles away from downtown Denver. They had to build a highly subsidized rail connection for workers and travelers to even consider having the airport there.

    The Norfolk airport is 8 miles from the Norfolk downtown and is a small airport that only serves five commuter-level airlines with 16 flights per day. All the flights are 4 digit flight numbers. You can figure out what that means for rail service…. Surely it would be cheaper to provide free Uber service for every two passengers that use the airport.

    http://www.norfolkairport.com/flight-info

  2. Sandy Teal

    I took a quick second look and realize there are more flights per day in Norfolk than the web page lists at one time. So please correct my previous comment.

  3. prk166

    @metrosucks, I was thinking the same thing. The title made for a good laugh.

    It’s too bad the reporter did’t inform his readers that, as reported by the Denver Business Journal, that public-private partnership will be paid nearly $8 _BILLION_ for the $2 billion dollar airport line. That is, if RTD doesn’t run out of money before they’ve paid them off.

    What I found sadly humorous was right after this guys little schpeel, the “page” he had a short piece squeezed into it about Virginia Tech’s autonomous vehicles coming to town. Some people just can’t connect 2 simple dots, apparently.

  4. prk166

    If you have the time and flexibility, Denver’s a great place to live for weeknd getaways. Between UAL, Frontier and Southwest the airport is swamped with O/D capacity. You can grab some cheap weekend fares. Of course, being an 8 hour one-way drive from the nearest “major” cities ( SLC, KC ) you have to fly if it’s just the weekend.

    I lived a mile from the capital building. Quite a few times when I would fly, I would _drive_ to the old Stapleton airport. They had free parking at an old parking ramp there. For $5 or $6 you’d take a coach RTD bus ( high back seats; luggage under the bus ) to the airport.

    Now that they’ve killed that bus, I would just drive to the airport and park remote or at one of the off site providers. The latter regularly run deals, especially on weekends, for $5 / day or less. I’d just take my bag down to the car, drive for 30 minutes, park, wait 7 minutes for a shuttle and I’m there. All easily done within an hour, even with some traffic.

    To take the train today, I’d have to catch a cab or bus downtown. 5 or 10 minutes waiting for it and another 10 minutes to get downtown. And I’ve have to get to Union Station in time for an A line train. The buses I could take don’t get me more the 4 blocks from there. I’m not complaining, it’s just more time that needs to be padded into the schedule to get the airport in time.

    I’m doing all this walkging and riding with a bag. NOt bad if it’s a short weekend trip and I have a small carry on. But if I had a longer trip and a regular suit case,, a big pain in the rear, to say the least. So that 45 minutes – and hour to the airport checkin becomes an hour to an hour and half. NOt the end of the world.

    EXCEPT—> Now they want $9 one-way for that train! If I’m traveling with someone else, as people tend to do, suddenly that $40 fare to gets me door to door is only $20 more than the train and a lot faster and more pleasant.

    May I hit some traffic and have another 5 or 15 minutes added to my trip? Yes. But the train is late more than 10% of the time, too. A late bus and I miss the train to the airport costing me another 10 or 15 minutes. A late train and, well, one lady said that out of 10 times she’s rode the train, she’s never been more than 20 minutes late.

    20 minutes late? How in the name of Samuel T satan does a 35 minute ride take 60% longer when it is on a BRAND NEW dedicted right of way that’s just or that train. Sure, I get it, I70, especially out at 225 can get clogged up. BUt it doesn’t usually add more than 5 minutes and that’s with a right of way I’m literally sharing with thousands if not tens of thousands of vehicles. The train just has a couple other trains to deal with.

    Anywhooooooooooooo………

  5. metrosucks

    Well if you have to type out that long a thing just to explain how to use the damn thing, no wonder no one uses it! Was in Europe recently (London & Paris) and the metro system just works. Of course, that is no excuse to build one here too, they had theirs for a hundred years.

  6. the highwayman

    Roads are mostly paid for by property taxes, there aren’t exactly driveways linked in directly to freeways.

    Also the USA has had 100,000+ miles of rail line stolen since WWI.

    An issue with Denver’s airport rail line is that it’s point to point with high platform access. Could ski trains and Amtrak go to Denver’s airport? :$

  7. the highwayman

    Prk166; What I found sadly humorous was right after this guys little schpeel, the “page” he had a short piece squeezed into it about Virginia Tech’s autonomous vehicles coming to town. Some people just can’t connect 2 simple dots, apparently.

    THWM; Indeed, that level of A.I. technology makes humanity obsolete. There’s no need for the forklift driver, if the forklift drives it self. So there’s no longer a need for that person to take a train or car to their former job. That level of A.I. eliminates both white and blue collar employment.

    I’m not joking when I say that you teahadi’s want Terminator. :$

  8. prk166


    Any talk about Denver International Airport has to consider that they decided to build a huge national hub airport way out in the middle of nowhere 25 miles away from downtown Denver. They had to build a highly subsidized rail connection for workers and travelers to even consider having the airport there.
    ” Sandy Teal

    No, they did not __HAVE__ to build a rail line. They had and still have buses. They have taxis, et al. And judging by the ample amount of employee But that’s probably me being a twat by taking what you said too literally. After all, technically they didn’t have to build a new freeway – Pena Blvd – out to the airport. BUt one can’t imagine there not being one.

    Are you questioning – and it’s a valid question – if Denver really needed to can Stapleton and build that insanely large airport?

    Either way with or without the train, I can’t imagine how anyone with low wages can afford to work there. IIRC the employees have to pay for some or all of their parking pass. And even if they get a transit pass, at $9 / pop for a train ride I can’t imagine the monthly pass that would cover that ride would be cheap, either, espeically not relative to wages of $10 or $15 / hr.

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