Denver RTD Light Rail

Image Denver, the Mile High City.

And great for getting around by light rail.

That is, if you live south of Colfax.

The Denver Light Rail, operated by RTD (Regional Transit District), is a pretty large system with 6 light rail lines (C, D, E, F, H, and W) that travel to Littleton, Englewood, Lakewood, Golden, Centennial, Lincoln, and many parts of the City of Denver.  The Southwest Line consists of the C and D lines, the C serving Union Station and the D serving California, Downing, and Stout Streets.  The Southeast Line consists of the E, F, and H lines, the E serving Union Station, the F and H serving California and Stout Streets.  The E and F both serve Lincoln and the H serves Nine Mile on a separate branch.  The West Line consists only of the W from Golden to Union Station. Going to Littleton, the Southwest Line runs along a major freight railroad line with multiple tracks and ample space to run a light rail next to it at comparable or faster speeds.  The Southeast Line runs along the highways or in medians for faster trips.  The W runs along residential streets and backroads on its way to Jefferson County.  The route loosely parallels US-6 up to Federal Center, then runs along US-6 until the Jeffco Government Center.  Speeds on the Southwest and Southeast Lines can reach 55MPH, with long stop spacing to accommodate the higher speeds.  The West Line is a more intimate line, running alongside residential backyards and side streets at roughly 30-35MPH.

The Denver system consists of Siemens SD100 and SD160 articulated light rail cars, both high-floor low-entry cars with similar features, serving Denver Area residents for more than 2 decades with high-speed runs and low platforms for reduced costs.  Every platform has a mini-high platform for wheelchairs and those with disabilities unable to climb the steps to board the vehicles, much like in Baltimore and Dallas (at one time).  The interiors are basic with grey cloth seats, similar to those found on RTD buses, and off-white lighting making it easier on the eyes of commuters wanting to read their morning newspapers.  Though they don’t mix SD100s and SD160s in the same trainsets, they can be found practically anywhere in the network at any time.  Most trains during the day are three-car trains, but during the rush hours, most H trains and some C and D trains are made up of four-car trains for carrying much heavier loads.

What’s good about Denver’s light rail is the hours of operation, from roughly 4Am to around 1AM each day, and their speeds once they get going outside of Downtown Denver.  The C and E from Union Station and the D, F, and H from California and Stout Streets meet at 10th and Osage and run together until I-25/Broadway.  Once they split for I-25/Broadway, the lines gain speed and longer stop spacing, upwards of a mile or more in some spots.  The H Line runs along I-25 with the E and F until Southmoor, then runs along I-225 to Nine Mile.  Along the H line past Southmoor, there is a massive reservoir, the Cherry Creek Reservoir, hidden by the hills which is the cause of extreme stop spacing, upwards of three miles between stations.  During the rush hours, the lines carry their heaviest loads, with four-car trains making up a third of trains going in an out of Downtown Denver.  Conveniently placed park-and-ride facilities are commonplace south of the split, but smaller facilities are available in the main trunk.  There are transit centers at Alameda and I-25/Broadway for convenient transfer to local buses.

I also found interesting how the services are split up once they get to Downtown Denver.  C and D trains from Littleton split up and take riders to either Invesco Field, Six Flags Elitch Gardens, and Union Station (C line) or to Downtown Denver via California and Stout (D line).  Same goes for the E and F lines from Lincoln; E goes to Union Station and F goes to California and Stout.  All H trains go to California and Stout, and all W trains go to Union Station.  If you are in Cherry Creek and need Union Station, take the free 16th Street MallRide or the free 18th Street MetroRide; if you are in Lakewood and need the Denver Pavillion, also take either bus.  MallRide is 24/7, while the MetroRide is peak hous only.  D trains continue past 18th/California/Stout and travel up Downing Street to 30th Street to serve riders in the north side of Denver.  All trains stops at the Auraria Campus, albeit at different sides of the campus.  The C, E, and W are closer to the Invesco Field side, while the D, F, and H are on the Colfax Avenue side.

I am about service delivery and planning as much as I am about looks, and Denver’s light rail trains with their high floors and overall train-like appearance caught my attention.  The SD160s have this “cowcatcher” apparatus which catches debris and pushes it off the rails in front of it…with an orange piece that helps the cowcatcher keep its form.  It unseemingly adds to the overall look of the trains, making them more appealing and reminiscent of Denver’s trolley and intercity rail history.  Even though most of the safety warning devices such as bells and horns are electronic, I still find RTD light rail a pleasure to ride and as safe as any other rail system in the U.S.  When those trains pass by active railroad crossing gates with their warning devices, it feels like I’m watching a train go by as opposed to a tourist trolley or something.  It feels like a train coming and not some copycat.

The only thing I didn’t really like was the higher fares for outer zones.  The first two zones being $2.25, third zone $4 and fourth zone $5.  It’s not the zone fare concept that I didn’t like; it’s merely the jump in fares from Zone A and B to Zone C and then to Zone D.  Not that it mattered too much to me during my visit, since i had a weekly unlimited pass.  The pricing, however, does make sense when you consider the travel distance from the farthest points of the light rail in Zone D, which is past the Denver County border line and far out from the rest of the Denver RTD services aside from Regional bus routes.

There are plans to extend the light rail system past Nine Mile on the H and 30th/Downing on the D, the Nine Mile Extension taking the system up to Aurora for the first time in RTD history and possibly bringing back the G line designation, which was a line that ran from Lincoln to Nine-Mile.  The G was the only rail line in the RTD system to bypass Downtown Denver, catering to a suburb-to-suburb ridership base to no avail.  RTD is hoping that the G would serve a growing ridership base if it ran from Aurora to Lincoln with connections to Denver’s upcoming commuter rail system.  The D line extension to 38th/Blake shall connect with the commuter rail once it opens in 2016.

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