PERRY: RTD’s double train-wreck takes out the R-Line and its credibility

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RTD officials inspect the scene after a southbound R Line light rail train derailed at the intersection of Sable Boulevard and Exposition Avenue, the afternoon of Sept. 21. 2022.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado.

I’m not an RTD light rail engineer and derailment investigator, but I can play one on TV.

I may have to.

That’s because it appears I, or someone, will have to step up and reveal to the public what the busy, very busy, RTD agency is doing to prevent yet a third derailment at a hair-pin turn in Aurora.

The five-year-old R-Line, which runs near Aurora’s city hall in central Aurora, derailed in September on a 90-degree turn at South Sable Boulevard and East Exposition Avenue.

Again.

Three people were injured when the train left the tracks instead of making the turn.

The same line jumped the tracks in the same place and the same way in 2019, injuring more people, including one woman whose leg was severed after being thrown from the train as it derailed.

A lengthy investigation into that derailment determined that — you may not believe this — that the driver of that train was going too fast to navigate the sharp, sharp turn, and it caused the train to jump the tracks.

So, months after this new derailment, what have we learned?

Nothing.

While the train has quit running, Aurora police and, maybe, someone from RTD or another agency has apparently been measuring and talking and, well, who knows how they’ve been investigating the crash, because no one will say.

RTD officials say there’s apparently some kind of a report about the crash, but they won’t reveal what’s in it or really who created it. It’s “confidential,” they say.

Why? They won’t say.

They will say that the report may be held secret by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. These are the people that regulate cab fares and grumble a little before allowing Xcel Energy to charge you whatever they damn well please for their monopolies on gas and electric service.

Why this board of political appointees would be involved in a serious investigation about now-repeated regional train derailments is as much a mystery as whatever is in the Aurora derailment report and the reason they want to keep it secret.

Aurora officials, perturbed, and also curious, like the rest of us, about what in the hell is going on at RTD and the Colorado PUC that trains flying off the tracks would be a private matter, made about as much progress as the flagging R-Line when RTD came to visit last week.

“I do not take lightly the disruption and inconvenience this service outage has caused for individuals who rely on the R Line on a daily basis,” the agency’s general manager and CEO, Debra Johnson, told the Aurora City Council while delivering an update with virtually no details last week.

That’s nice.

“Should a similar service disruption occur in the future, I submit to you that RTD will strive to engage in a more robust communication and collaborative effort with municipal and county officials and stakeholders to educate and inform them regarding the timelines, processes and regulatory requirements related to the safe and complete restoration of transit services.”

Uh huh.

Going out on a limb, it seems, but perhaps the goal here could be to prevent another derailment, and answer questions about this one.

When Aurora Councilmember Steve Sundberg asked the question everyone keeps asking, did the train derail because the driver was going too fast on the too-tight of curve, he was told that information is “confidential.” Johnson, however, said that he’s welcome, like the rest of us, to draw his own conclusion by watching the video of the little train that couldn’t, and didn’t.

If he were to watch the video from a street pole depicting the train racing into the turn like a Tokyo bullet train, and not the clunky hunk of mass transit it was, it would be “easy to surmise that speed was involved,” she said.

In fact, even I can surmise that there was no way in hell that train was going to stay on tracks that raise another question: “Who in the hell put a 90-degree turn there to begin with?”

Which leads to another question:  “We’ve had rovers on Mars digging around for years, and we can’t make an electric train automatically slow down on a hair-pin turn in Aurora, which is considered Mars by many in Denver?”

And, with all due respect to the thrill of confidentiality, les chat, it seems, has derailed itself out of the bag here.

The public only slightly less cares why the driver never hit the brakes, or why they didn’t work, or even if the driver had gotten off at the previous stop and racoons were driving the damn thing.

With the train starting back up this week, how does the public know this won’t happen again? And again?

Of course, answering that question would probably require divulging at least a hint about what might have happened back when daytime highs were in the 90s.

I think most of the public gets that this has something, or everything, to do with a train-load of people suing the hair-pin turns out of RTD, but that doesn’t address the public that can see and hear that train a comin’ down the tracks again.

Not that RTD has totally blown their credibility here, along with the Colorado PUC, but it pretty much went off the tracks with the R-Line debacle.

Perhaps an attentive and concerned governor or an engaged RTD board and Legislature would see the danger of careening trains and reckless secrecy here and get this train wreck back on track.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Mastadon, Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]

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Factory Working Orphan
Factory Working Orphan
2 months ago

The R Line has been operational for several years, yet it’s only recently that it’s been flying off the tracks at that corner.

Maybe the problem isn’t the track design, but the people driving them. Lower your hiring standards, and you can expect trash employees who don’t take their jobs seriously.

Den Voran
1 month ago

Looking at the big picture, it’s ridiculous that there’s such a sharp turn at this location in the first place. It’s not like we’re talking about a densely-built block in downtown Denver, where trains have to make tight turns to fit between skyscrapers. All three corners of this intersection that bracket the light rail tracks are occupied by either PARKING LOTS or OPEN SPACE. Relatively easily, RTD could acquire additional right-of-way at the intersection approaches and design a much more generous turning radius, which would allow trains to maintain speed between Exposition and Sable. The resulting travel time savings would do a lot to improve the rider experience on this underperforming, lumbering line.

Last edited 1 month ago by Den Voran