AURORA | The train operator behind the derailment of the Regional Transportation District’s R Line train in Aurora is no longer employed by the agency, according to an RTD spokesperson.
An RTD action plan that was recently declassified blamed a speeding, distracted train operator for the September derailment that occurred at the intersection of Exposition Avenue and Sable Boulevard. The incident left three people injured and closed a segment of rail for more than two months.
The action plan states that the operator of the train was traveling at approximately 38.8 miles per hour — almost four times the speed limit — when they attempted to barrel through the 90-degree bend in the track at Exposition and Sable.
The incident was the second time in four years that RTD’s R Line derailed at the same location and for the same reason. In January 2019, another operator took the bend too quickly, derailing the train and injuring multiple people, including a woman whose leg was severed when she fell out of a door.
In spite of this, in their corrective action plan, which the Colorado Public Utilities Commission voted to make public on Nov. 23, RTD describes the likelihood of similar events happening as “remote,” defined as “likely to occur sometime in the life of an item.”
Tina Jaquez, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in an email that RTD had “conducted a thorough safety analysis using a risk matrix to determine probability and severity” and factored in proposed safety improvements when it made its determination that the future likelihood of a similar event was remote.
“It is important to consider that since the last derailment, there have been more than 50,000 safe trips operated in that section of track going in the same direction,” she said. “Additionally, the mitigations implemented reduce both the probability and the frequency, which resulted in the rating.”
RTD also suggested in the action plan that differences in configuration between the train tracks and nearby roadways contributed to “operator inattentiveness” and that training and oversight issues factored into the derailment.
Jaquez said the train operator was no longer employed by the agency but that RTD could not comment on the possibility of them facing criminal charges.
The operator in the 2019 incident was not criminally charged, although investigators at the time suggested he could have been prosecuted for careless driving if the relevant state law applied to trains. A representative of the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office could not immediately say whether the operator in the Sept. 21 incident would be prosecuted.
The plan describes steps that the agency plans to take to improve safety along the track near Exposition and Sable, including:
- Before restarting service — requiring operators to bring the train to a stop before navigating the 90-degree bend.
- By the end of the year — lowering the speed limit on the straightaway approaching the bend from 35 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour (the 10-mile-per-hour limit on the curve itself was not targeted for changes), adding signage along the track to warn operators of the curve, moving a radar sign farther north to give operators more advanced warning to slow down an ensuring staff are supervised appropriately.
- By the end of March 2023 — evaluating how supervisors are assigned, preparing monthly reports on quality assurance measurements that fail to meet standards, and evaluating schedules and how the agency measures operator performance in relation to trains running on time, to reduce pressure on operators.
- By the end of June 2023 — developing a plan for installing a system to automatically stop trains north of the curve.
Jaquez said there are eight curves in RTD’s light rail network similar to the turn at Exposition and Sable. She said the network includes 60 miles of track, with the “vast majority” being straightaways, and that “all of RTD’s rail alignments were determined through an extensive environmental and preliminary engineering and design process” that “included input from the public and local municipalities.”
Other parts of the investigative report cited in the plan have yet to be released to the public. State law permits the commission to limit the release of related documents to commissioners, advisory and trial staff, administrative law judges and attorneys for each of those groups.
A four-mile segment of rail between the Aurora Metro Center and the 13th Avenue Station was closed following the Sept. 21 derailment, with normal service resuming more than two months later on the morning of Nov. 29. RTD offered bus transportation from one station to the other for about a month after the derailment, before discontinuing the bus bridge at the end of October.
Throughout the process, public officials, including Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, questioned why RTD took so long to restart service and why the agency didn’t do more to communicate its plans.
The agency’s general manager and CEO, Debra Johnson, told the City Council on Nov. 21 that RTD would do a better job of communicating if a similar event happened in the future and that she did not “take lightly the disruption and inconvenience this service outage has caused for individuals who rely on the R Line on a daily basis.”