DENVER — Residents who live in Arvada and Wheat Ridge are a step closer to getting the commuter rail service they’ve long been waiting for.
The Public Utilities Commission decided Wednesday that “it was in the public interest” to allow RTD to move forward on the G-Line, and to use the 5-year waiver granted by the Federal Railroad Administration, to certify that it’s A-Line crossings are operating correctly.
Additionally, the PUC voted to allow RTD to change the warning times at crossings and to begin the process of gradually removing some of the flaggers stationed at crossings along the A-Line.
Commission Chairman Jeffrey Ackerman said the feds must grant the same waiver to the G-Line that they did to the A-Line, before RTD can resume full-testing, and then begin revenue service on the commuter line to the northwest suburbs.
He said those conditions include the grade crossing attendee plan, monthly reports of crossing performance, and immediate reporting of accidents and incidents.
Ackerman added that “field verifications” should be conducted at all A-Line crossings before flaggers are removed.
“We have set forth a process by which…we can have a gradual removal of those flaggers,” he said. “The Commission should remove the flaggers on a crossing by crossing basis, as that information comes in and orders are put out.”
He said right now, RTD would only be able to issue completion letters on the Sable Boulevard, northbound and southbound Quebec and York and Josephine crossings.
The Commissioners said flaggers can’t be removed until the FRA signs off on a “demobilization plan.”
Demobilization means the flaggers would be removed over a period of weeks, in a controlled, phased manner.
Both RTD and Denver Transit Partners, the company that built the two lines, want to make sure that drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians are aware that the flaggers will soon be removed from the crossings.
We greatly appreciate the Commission and the ruling they came forward with today,” said Scott Reed, RTD’s Assistant General Manager of Communication. “We think this is a really big step forward for the communities surrounding the University of Colorado A-Line and the G-Line.”
Reed said both the A and G-Lines use Positive Train Control and a Wireless Crossing System.
“This is brand new technology,” he said. “Wireless, at-grade technology is the wave of the future.”
Reed acknowledged that software issues plagued the system early on, causing numerous delays for train passengers and motorists.
He said crossing gates occasionally came down too early and stayed down too long.
Reed said the PUC was concerned that drivers, who got tired of waiting, might try to drive around the crossing arms and get hit by a train.
That’s why 65 flaggers were stationed along the A-Line, to help prevent mishaps.
Last month, RTD General Manager Dave Genova told Administrative Law Judge Robert Garvey that it “was probably several million dollars per month to maintain those flaggers out there.”
“I think the pain we suffered will help others,” Reed said.
When asked if RTD would choose to be the guinea pig, if they had to do it all over again, Reed replied, “Absolutely! Because we’re talking about something that is an investment for the next 100 years.”
He said it would have been nice to let another agency try the technology first, “but I don’t think we would change anything in terms of the technology or the process we went through to implement this.”
He said the important thing is working more closely with the regulatory environment to make sure that we’re with them every step of the way, and they’re with us.”
Reed said it could still take months before the flaggers are removed or the G-Line opens.
“We really won’t know until we get the written orders on this, and then we’ve got quite a bit of internal testing that we have to do,” he said. “It’s going to be a while before we can do all of that.”
Rocky Mountain Flagging
The crossing attendants are employees of Rocky Mountain Flagging.
When Denver7 tried to talk to some of the flaggers along the A-Line Wednesday, to find out if they have other jobs lined up, a supervisor said none of them would talk.
A woman answering the phone at company headquarters said, “we have no comment.”
RTD, Union reach contract agreement
But while this is happening, RTD union employees received some good news this week.
Both the union and the board of directors agreed to a new, three-year contract with some big pay raises.
The new contract runs through 2021 and deals with the salaries and conditions of employment for the nearly 2,000 people the union represents.
Wages were increased by eight percent for the first year and then three percent the following two years.
“We based our wage proposals on looking at 20 years and seeing if our actual rates of pay actually have kept up with inflation and we found out that they did not. This new increase is right about where we should be with the cost-of-living over the last 20 years,” said William Jones, the general council of the ATU Local 1001.
The raises for operators from $17.59 to $19.40 an hour this year. It’s the largest pay raise RTD employees have ever seen. The union hopes the pay raises will help employees live closer to where they work.
“One thing we seen the last several years is an incredibly long commute for a lot of folks,” Jones said. “Frankly that’s why we needed a substantial pay increase in this contract is to help people keep up the cost of housing in the metro area.”
Along with the wage increases, RTD committed to adding an additional $6.2 million into the employee pension fund each year and an additional $2.6 million into the health insurance fund.
The contract also more clearly defined the rights employees have to things like bathroom breaks.
“It’s just unconscionable that until now something as basic as a restroom break has been something that you had to fight for as an operator,” Jones said.
The problem stems back to the schedules the drivers are required to stick to. Those schedules haven’t changed in decades. However, two other things have changed.
“We know that traffic congestion has increased dramatically and the number of folks using buses that have mobility devices has increased dramatically,” Jones said
Each time a rider with a mobility device like a wheel chair takes the bus, it takes at least two minutes to get them onboard and offboard.
“So they have zero time to just go use the restroom. We just thought the dignity of the work requires that you get a break,” Jones said.
This is the first time in the past 44 years that these rights have been included. But because of the bathroom breaks, the bus schedules might have to be adjusted a bit.
The contract also cuts down on the amount of forced overtime an employee must work. Jones says currently, employees are working about six days a week instead of five.
“It’s been a problem with retention because RTD has been able to hire people but they haven’t been able to keep people because of this crazy schedule that they have. They’re down almost a fourth of the number of train operators that they should have,” Jones said. “That has been a huge morale problem and we now have a mechanism in the contract where you can actually be excused from having to do that forced work.”
More than anything, Jones says this contract is about the dignity of life for employees and overall public safety.