Ahead Of The Busy Holiday Travel Season, What’s Up With Denver’s ‘Train To The Plane’? (Transcript)

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Photo: A Line Train At DIA (Staff)
An A Line train rests at the Denver International Airport platform on the line's opening day, Friday, April 22, 2016.

Denver's airport is about to get crazy busy for the holidays, so we wanted an update on the train that goes there.

The University of Colorado A-Line has had a lot of problems. It's made passengers late, or left them stranded. And malfunctioning crossing gates have been such a big problem the Federal Railroad Administration was prepared to shut down both the A and the B line to Westminster. But RTD's received a 90-day extension.

Despite all that, ridership is increasing and trains are 87 percent on-time, says RTD.

RTD Spokesman Nate Currey and Nadia Garas of Denver Transit Partners, which constructed and maintains the lines, joined Colorado Matters Host Ryan Warner.


Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.  I'm Ryan Warner.  Denver’s Airport is about to get crazy busy for the holidays and so we want an update on the train that goes there.  The University of Colorado A-Line has had its share of problems making passengers late or leaving them stranded and malfunctioning crossing gates were such a problem that the Feds were prepared were prepared to shut down both the A and B lines but RTD has gotten a 90 day extension.  Despite all that, ridership is increasing and trains are 87% on time says RTD.  Spokesman Nate Currey is with us and so is Nadia Garas of Denver Transit Partners, which constructed and maintains the lines and welcome to you both.

Nadia Garas: Good morning, and thank you for having us.

Nate Currey: Good morning, Ryan.

RW: So Nate’s people may have seen the flaggers standing by the crossing since the A and B lines opened, camped out there on chairs.  Can you explain just in laymen’s terms what the crossing problem is?

NC: Yeah.  So there’s a software issue that we have with this new positive train control safety system that we have and so it’s just a matter of getting the timing of the gates correct.  In the meantime, the Federal Government, the Federal Railroad Administration, has asked us to have a triple layer of safety and that’s those crossing guards.  They’re, they have a visual check to make sure that everything is going well at the crossings themselves.

RW: Okay.  And if they weren’t there was does the federal government fear would happen?

NC: Well, there’s still two systems in play so there’s the old system the trains have been running on for decades, over a century now, actually and then there’s the new positive train control system that’s working.  It’s just, again, the software system, so it’s  just being extra safe and careful and we always err on the side of safety.

RW: Positive train control can you just say briefly what that is? Folks may have heard it in the wake of the recent de-railings on the East Coast.

NC: Absolutely.  Yes, so, the old system is ATC think of it as an analog system.  This is a new PTC, it's a digital system so it’s a wireless and the train is communicating with lots of different towers and gates as it continues on its path.

RW: All right.  So an automated system, one that presumably is deemed safer by the Federal Government?

NC: Yeah, exactly.  It’s designed so that if the train is going too quickly and the operator for some reason doesn’t respond it’ll shut the train down or if it’s coming into a curve too quick or if there are obstacles in the crossing itself, it knows to go ahead and slow the train, if not stop it altogether if the operator for some reason is not responding.

RW: So that’s what is at the hearts of those crossing issues on both the A and B-Lines. Nadia, how will Denver Transit Partners resolve the issue in say the next 90 days, right, that’s the length of the extension?  Is there a software patch that you can install in that timeframe?

NG: Sure.  So I try not to think of it as a software issue so much as a software optimization revision.  So essentially what Denver Transit Partners is doing is they’re going in and they’re making some updates if you will.  And the way I like to think of positive train control, on your computer the base system is safe but sometimes we have security measure like McAfee or other software programs that are an added layer of security.  So some of the difficulties that we’ve been seeing is it's our security system that’s been presenting challenges.  That’s really what PTC is, it’s a safe almost backup, if there ever a failure to the base system in the base layer.

RW: And so in the 90 day timeframe do you think you can fix what needs to be fixed?

NG: I do. I’m confident that what we’ve told the FRA will have delivered in the next 90-days will be delivered.

RW: The FRA the Federal –

NG: Federal Railway Administration, correct.

RW: Railway Administration.

NG: Thank you.  

RW: Okay.  So then you think the 90-day extension will cover you and by the end of what those people, the crossing guards, can pick up and leave?

NG: Well, I can’t speak to what exactly will happen in the next 90 days but what I can tell you is that what we have outlined for the FRA, the Federal Railway Administration, the optimizations and revisions that will provide the necessary updates to our system and make it more successful, shorten those crossing warning activation times, yes, I’m confident that those things will happen.

RW: You do not think another extension will be necessary?

NG: Yeah, again, that would be a question for the FRA. I can’t speak to what their solution will be after the next 90 days but I know what we’ve outlined for them we will absolutely deliver on and I think it’s really a big achievement that they’ve heard us out, they’ve heard our plan and they’ve said, “Yeah, we have confidence that you’ll be able to do this.

RW: You characterize this as an achievement.  I’m sure there are any number of people saying what the heck happened here, why wasn’t this born out of the testing phase?

NG: Sure.  And that’s a great question I appreciate that.  I think it’s almost comparable to anything innovative and new, right, so in the 1900’s elevators they stopped needing a person an elevator and they just said these are electric.  You don’t need somebody with you.  Governor Hickenlooper just brought up this example last week. I think there’s some similarities.  Are people really nervous to use an elevator without somebody in them?  And the same way with positive train control, it’s a new thing, but this is a really big deal for Colorado.  I think if you love Colorado you should love the train to plane.  I know there have been difficulties and we are really sorry for that, but ultimately, public transportation is the way of the future.  Nobody wants to sit on I-25 North or South for that matter, or I-70 so, yes, to me this is an achievement, and I know I’m a little bit biases.

RW: I see. But growing pains would you say?

NG: Absolutely. I think we have had growing pains which is normal for a transit system like this.

RW: Am I right to say, Nate, that this is the first positive train control system that will be on the RTD Line?

NC: Yeah.  As a matter of fact I was going to chime and just say you’re not only the first one in RTD, it's the first one in the nation’s history.  So we’re breaking ground here literally with this new system and it’s never been done before so I think to expect there not to have been a little bit of bumps on the road getting this up and running was maybe a little over optimistic but what we’re doing  here in Denver, Colorado is going to have a net effect on passenger rail across the country so something to be proud of even though it’s taking a little bit of patience.

RW: As I said the Feds were preparing at least for the possibility of shutting the lines down until the fix was in place. You got this 90 day extension. Is there any sense that there could be a shutdown if the 90 day period is not met, Nadia?

NG: Again, hard to speak to what might happen in the future.  But at this stage I’m confident that Denver Transit Partners and RTD will deliver what they promised to the FRA.

RW: All of this points to huge questions around the G-Line to Wheatridge.  Like the A and B Lines it is also commuter rail.  It uses the same systems. It is scheduled to open this fall.  Is that still possible? What is the timing of the G-Line to Wheatridge, Nate?

NC: You know it is still possible. We’re still targeting fall of this year and so that gives us up till December 20th technically.  I think Denver Transit Partners along with RTD are working as hard as they can to get everything up and running but we've agreed to make sure that A and B are running well and functioning as they should before that line opens up. There's still a window for sure that we could get it in the fall.

RW: Okay. Can you stand firm and say it will be open say by December 20th?

NC: Not going to stand firm on that just because I don’t want to get angry phone calls but that is our target day. We are confident and we’re working towards that.

RW: Nadia, Denver Transit Partners also involved in the G-Line. Can you add anything more about the date there?

NG: Yeah. I would agree with Nate that that’s our target date, Fall of 2016.  That’s what we’re shooting for.

RW: That’s what you’re shooting for, right?

NG: Correct.

RW: You’re listening to Colorado Matters.  I’m Ryan Warner and I promise I feel better than I sound today.  We are talking about commuter rail throughout Colorado on the RTD Line, the status of the A, B and G-Lines.  Those are respectfully to the airport, to Wheatridge, and to Westminster.  So, Nadia, this crossing gate issues are not the only hiccups on the University of Colorado A-Line. During construction Denver Transit Partners had to demolish and rebuild a bridge because of design flaws and a recent Denver Post analysis shows there were concerns about the overhead electrical system being vulnerable to lightning as far back as 2013. A lightning strike earlier this year caused an extensive delay on the A-Line. How are Denver Transit Partners fixing that concern?

NG: Sure. Well, ultimately, Denver Transit Partners is of the opinion that the lightning strike was something called a force majeure. So what that means is it’s an act of God, if you will.  We believe that the overhead catenary system is absolutely safe and absolutely reliable.

RW: That’s the power system for the commuter line?

NG: Correct. The electrical wires. So fixing isn’t really the right term.  Issues is not really the right term either.  We’re always maintaining the line.  We’re always making improvements in the same way you would make improvements to your car.  You get the oil changed; you put your snow tires on.  We’re out there and routine maintenance is happening all the time.  As you know, we’re doing some in the next few weeks.

RW: That’s right; just say a few words about that as it might affect some travel in off hours?

NG: Absolutely, so and RTD can speak to this, too, but we’re doing some routine maintenance work late at night, between the hours of 11: 30PM and 4: 15AM in the next four to eight weeks.

RW: This is the train to the plane?

NG: The train to the plane, correct, to DIA and back.  So if you use that for your regular commute to the airport just be aware that in the late night hours there may be some delays.

RW: But, surely, there’s lightning proofing for trains?

NG: Sure, exactly, there is lightning proofing.  And the overhead catenary system that we have is an internationally revered system.  This is arguably the best system that exists. The fact that there was a lightning strike and that that had borderline chaotic repercussions is something that can happen to an airplane, it's also something that can happen while you're driving. It's extenuating circumstances that a transit line, such like the commuter rail line are privy to when you're transporting a lot of people to and from every seven minutes essentially. 

RW:  Remind us what the effects were.

NG: Well it was dramatic. That we had almost a power outage effect if you will. So the train stopped on the I-70 bridge and we had to evacuate passengers.

RW:  And would you say, Nate, being a force majeure, it's also a rarity then?

NC: You know it is a rarity. I think this is one area where RTD and the GP differs. RTD disputes that it is a force majeure work. We're working with our partners on what that actually would be classified as and what that looks like. But hopefully it's a rarity. We know that lightning strikes often in Colorado, especially in the Plains area so that's something we are working with them and making sure that maintenance is occurring and that the design of it is solid. 

RW:  If RTD doesn't believe it was an act of God, what do you suspect?

NC: Well it could be a design issue. I mean that's something that we've set aside for the moment while we have the rest of A, B and then G to get up, to discuss that with them down the road. But we just, we know lightning will occur and will hit our [unclear], light rail systems all the time and we can't have a train obviously [unclear] ending every single time lightning might strike. So that's just something we're working out and we're doing it well with PTP and we're pleased with the products that we're making.

RW:  And this will obviously be a consideration as the G line comes online, if that happens this fall, correct?

NC: That's right. Yep. 

RW:  How would you describe the relationship between RTD and Denver Transit Partners? Has there been withholding of any payment on any other stuff?

NC: Other than this payment that has been withholding of payments, on that there's about $1.3 million I think so far total that have been withheld. For performance issues largely and that's written into the contract but as far as our relationship goes, you know we're in this for the long haul together and we're one big RTD family. So there are growing pains, this is the first time this has ever happened as far as a public/private partnership for us so there's just adjustments that are going on as we move from construction to operation phase. 

NC: And I'd like to add if I may that this is the point of a P3, right.  When we have--

RW:  When you say P3, Public-Private Partnership.

NC: Public-Private Partnership exactly.

RW:  Let me say that increasingly what we're hearing from state officials is this is how major transit projects will be funded in this state. 

NG: Right. So this is a good example of the private side, Denver Transit Partners, taking on some of the risk that happens when there are challenges. Financially we are paying for the changes and the implementation, the revisions, the optimizations, it doesn't come out of taxpayer dollars at all. So ultimately this is why I believe Colorado and the country are moving towards P3s because the private side assumes all the risk when there are challenges such that you're seeing on the A-line and B and G.

NC: Ryan, if I could just add real quick that one thing that's, to keep in perspective is really what a remarkable thing this is. Matter of fact tomorrow I'm flying to Finland, I've been invited to come out and present at a conference regarding P3s and what the challenges and what the opportunities are that they bring to funding transportation. So even though that we're right in the middle of things that have been challenging, the rest of the nation and the globe are looking at us going wow, this is amazing what you guys are doing. 

RW:  I will say Denver Transit Partners hopes to make money on this deal, that's part of the agreement.

NG: Of course, ultimately it's an investment. 

RW:  Very briefly, Nate, I'm just wondering if RTD is happy with the ridership numbers so far for the A and B lines and that 87% on time rate?

NC: Yeah, we're really tickled about it actually. The predicted ridership on A was 18,600 per day. And the month of September we actually did 18,811. So we've crossed that for the first time then on the B line it was a much smaller number, 800 was the predicted ridership and we're up right over 1500 so it's almost doubling of that line. And that goes to say that the reliability of the train is great. If you look at the past 90 days, that number of on-time is in the low 90s. So DTP is doing a great job getting issues corrected and running the train well.

RW:  Thanks to both of you for being with us. 

NC: Thank you.

RW:  You hear there, Nate Currey, spokesperson for RTD and Nadia Garas with Denver Transit Partners, which constructed and maintains the A-B-G lines. And we should say that the Light Rail R line through Arvada is scheduled to open this winter.  Still to come, a slow burning fight on the Western Slope. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.