Here’s why RTD’s light rail system is virtually unusable this week
Especially along the I-25 corridor, Santa Fe Drive and in the heart of downtown.
Greg Saville looked puzzled Tuesday morning as he stood at the Regional Transportation District’s light rail station at Interstate 25 and Broadway.
The station typically buzzes during rush hour with commuters, buses and trains all coming and going. But on this morning, only a few stragglers and the occasional bus were in sight.
RTD has suspended train service at this and three other stations until Friday morning as crews replace overhead power lines, an interruption Saville didn’t know about.
“I had no idea,” Saville said after this reporter told him about the suspended service.
He said he planned to drive into work instead and shell out $16 to park.
“Seems like this happens pretty frequently,” he said of recent service disruptions.
The power line replacement and two other maintenance projects are making RTD’s E, D and H light rail lines extremely difficult — and in some places impossible — to use this week, especially along the I-25 corridor, Santa Fe Drive and in the heart of downtown.
And because of staffing shortages, the transit agency isn’t running substitute buses between closed stations — a typical practice during service interruptions.
“These scheduled disruptions without bus shuttles are just another symptom of an insufficient transit workforce,” Molly McKinley, policy director for the Denver Streets Partnership, said in a press release. “Transit riders need leaders at the local, regional, and state levels working together to address this need.”
RTD officials said the work is vital to the long-term health of the light rail system, and urged riders to sign up for text alerts for the latest service interruptions.
“We understand it can be frustrating,” said RTD spokesperson Austin Nettleton. “But in the long term, it’s going to make for a better experience for our customers.”
Here’s a brief look at the three distinct projects that are wreaking havoc on commutes this week.
Project 1: Worn-out wires
Atop every RTD light rail train car, devices called pantographs are mounted to draw power from thick overhead wires. All of that friction means the wires — which are about 2,000 feet long — need to be replaced on occasion. That’s what is happening between now and Friday on sections of the D, E and H lines south of downtown Denver.
While RTD tries to do some maintenance work in small chunks overnight to avoid disruptions, that’s not possible with this particular project.
“There’s no way to do it in a two-hour block overnight. You have to de-energize, take the wire down, and then put the wire back up, which takes a lot of time,” said RTD engineer Matt Druffel.
Druffel said there is one silver lining to the disruptions: A pedestrian bridge that’s part of the nearby Broadway Station development is being installed while the power is down.
“We’re going to shut it down once, do everything, and then get out,” he said.
Project 2: A months-long fix to a years-old problem
You’ve probably seen the western-themed panels along I-25 between Broadway and the southern edge of the metro. Sitting atop them are six-foot concrete slabs that cover the joint between the walls and the earth behind.
But RTD, the Colorado Department of Transportation, and the contractor that built the mega “T-Rex” project in the 2000s, later agreed that the slabs needed additional anchors to keep them attached to the walls.
“If they fall off onto the tracks or onto a train … those are the kinds of things that we don’t want to happen,” said Chuck Culig, RTD’s manager of engineering construction
RTD staff have been slowly working to do that over the last few years, tackling lower panels first during the overnight hours. But the project reached a point where crews needed to get to harder-to-reach areas near the overhead power lines.
So RTD officials decided to rip the bandaid off and, beginning in April, drastically reduced service on the E, H and R lines until fall so the work can be done more quickly. A similar disruption will happen next year, too, during warm months.
“We thought that while it would be a disruption to service, this was the safest way and most productive way to do the work,” Druffel said.
Project 3: Emergency repairs downtown
RTD’s tracks in the heart of downtown have been carrying trains since 1994 and are wearing out. A section of track at 17th Street and California Street needs immediate repair, Druffel said. That will disrupt service on the D, H and L lines this Thursday and Friday in downtown.
All of these projects happening the same week are something of a “perfect storm,” Culig said, adding that maintenance work tends to ramp up in warmer weather.
“We’re just trying to make as safe and complete services as we possibly can,” he said. “These things happen.”