DENVER -- The bumpy launch of Denver’s long-awaited commuter rail line to the airport left RTD staff and board members fielding complaints from customers and expressing internal displeasure with the train’s repeated delays and breakdowns.
The e-mails, obtained through an open records request by Denver7 Investigates, detail the challenging initial months of the A-line service from downtown’s Union Station to Denver International Airport.
“Right now things pretty much suck!”
The train launched to fanfare in April, but suffered instant problems out of the gate. Malfunctions at crossing gates required Denver Transit Partners, the contractor that operates the train, to station crossing guards at every crossing.
In May, a series of delays captured headlines, infuriated passengers and kicked up such internal turmoil that by the end of the month, one official wrote in an email, “Right now things pretty much suck!”
On May 17, a passenger wrote of being stranded on the train the previous evening for 90 minutes after a power outage.
“The situation escalated over the course of the 1-and-a-half hours as passengers became increasingly angry and frustrated due to complete lack of airflow, bathrooms, and being told that they could not exit the train. Some passengers had to resort to peeing in water bottles. Others missed flights and were forced to pay anywhere between $100 and $500 to rebook,” the passenger wrote in an email.
Compounding the problem, the passenger called RTD’s customer service hotline and received no apology from the operator on the recorded call obtained by Denver7 Investigates.
“I’m not sure what you’re looking for at this point, as far as resolution,” the operator told the passenger. “The A-train is not operated by RTD. That’s the… um.. Denver transportation that operates the train.”
An RTD official, upon reading the passenger’s complaint email and hearing his recorded call with the customer service operator, summed it up simply: “It’s bad.” Another wrote, “It's the opposite of what we need communicated in these instances.”
On May 24, a lightning strike caused a delay that lasted nearly eight hours and forced RTD to evacuate passengers from the train and shuttle them on buses.
After that incident, a passenger emailed RTD officials to complain after finding the train had broken down at DIA. Riders were directed to get on buses but the bus driver bypassed several stops, further inconveniencing passengers.
“Issues like this are not simply convenience issues, they are safety issues as well. The situation out there was very chaotic,” the passenger wrote.
“We fell short today of our expectations and the public's expectations. We are committed to perform better,” RTD spokesperson Nate Currey wrote in response.
Another passenger wrote to RTD’s board chair, Tom Tobiassen, that he showed up at the train station to ride the train to work, only to find the A-line not running: “Once I hurried over to the bus, the driver said she was only going to airport, [nowhere] else. Now what am I supposed to do? I go back toward train looking for help and guidance. No one there. I ran around another 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get to work. No one to help.”
Tom Tobiassen summed it up in his May 25 response to that complaint: “Everyone [is] pretty PO'd with DTP, the train service provider. We are stepping up pressure to get the system fixed so we can rely on the train. Right now things pretty much suck!”
Rebuilding public trust
While the high-profile incidents of lengthy delays have died down, the A-line is still experiencing troubles. Twice this week passengers experienced delays aboard the train. A cracked rail on Thursday left trains running very slowly on a bitterly cold day. And flaggers continue to patrol every crossing gate along the A-line route with those technical issues still unresolved.
RTD spokesman Nate Currey said the emails reviewed by Denver7 Investigates reflect the disappointment felt not only by passengers but by RTD as well after the bumpy start.
“This line, connecting downtown to the airport, has been planned for 30 years, so you've got, you know, generations that have been anticipating this line,” Currey said. “To have it kind of stumble out of the gate the way it did was embarrassing and disappointing for all of RTD, Denver Transit Partners -- our concessionaire -- and for everybody in the region.”
Currey said RTD recognizes the early troubles created an image problem for the new train – and RTD.
“I know that we [have to] do some building of bridges and trust again with the public after we get this fully up and running,” Currey told Denver7. “The only thing we can do to make it right is to run the train on time. And, when it's scheduled to go, it goes. And then it runs 37 minutes to the airport just like we say. There's going to be hiccups along the way, not to the extent that we've experienced though.”
“Do you think the A-line was put into service prematurely?" asked Denver7 investigative reporter Ryan Luby.
"Prematurely, no. Could it have had some of the issues resolved ahead of time that it had? Probably,” Currey responded.
RTD says ridership on the A-line continues to grow and they are confident more and more Coloradans will continue to put their trust in the “train to the plane.”
“By far and large, people are getting where they need to go,” Currey said.