Ride the Entire Denver Light Rail In One Day? I"m On Board!
Most days, I am content to take the bus to work and back, read a piece or two of transit news, and go to sleep dreaming I am swaying in the center aisle of a brisk underground train. Other days, I have an idea that reroutes the temporary flow of my daily consciousness for the better. One Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I had one of those thoughts. “I SHOULD RIDE THE ENTIRE DENVER LIGHT RAIL IN ONE DAY.” It seemed so obvious. How was this a new thought to me?! Having completed a similar urban challenge in the past and enjoying a growing passion for public transit, this was the perfect goal. I set a due date: by the end of 2015, I would ride all 6 lines of the RTD light rail.
Stations Completed: 0. Buses Ridden: 0. Ideas I Was Thrilled to Implement: 1.
I live 65 miles north of Denver in sunny Fort Collins, so getting to the starting line of this adventure presented an opportunity for innovation. I was nominally familiar with Bustang, a CDOT commuter bus service that began running earlier in 2015. Bustang provided routes from Denver south to Colorado Springs, west to Glenwood Springs, and north to Fort Collins. The northern route was still in its infancy and offered only weekday service, but I had vacation days to kill use and an idea to implement.
I began tossing the idea around at work, expecting the typical responses: “You’re just going to ride trains all day,” “That sounds exactly like something you would do,” and “Count me out.” While I did receive these comments, a certain brave soul saw an opportunity for a new experience! When I later learned he was also trying to kill use his extra vacation days, my confidence in his yearning for a new experience was weakened. Regardless, my coworker, fellow Fort Collins Public Transit Enthusiasts meetup member, and friend Colby and I picked Friday, November 20th, 2015, as our day of transit glory.
Another question I was asked multiple times was whether the light rail to the airport was running yet. I knew it was not, but as there are four planned light rail extensions slated to open in 2016 as part of the FasTracks program, I decided I would return to try those out in due time. As others have discovered, riding entire transit systems in a day can be difficult, so I wanted to give the medium-sized system a go as soon as possible.
In the week leading up to our adventure, I had a bit of due diligence to attend to. The Bustang tickets were a reasonable $10 one-way, or $20 for the roundtrip. I was hoping we could ride Bustang from the Fort Collins Downtown Transit Center to Denver Union Station, but the morning southbound routes only left from the Harmony Transfer Center. This was 5 miles from downtown Fort Collins and would require a private automobile trip (something I am increasingly opposing). Using a car was 100% a means to an end on this day, so I conceded.
Checking the RTD fare table, I learned the light rail system was broken into fare zones. Only 2 stops were in Fare Zone D, the farthest two from downtown. Since we would be visiting all of them, we would need to purchase a Regional Day Pass for $14. A total of $34 for a full day of transportation seemed quite reasonable. We purchased Bustang tickets online the day before and printed to take with us, though you could scan the QR codes from your phone when you board. I learned that we could purchase the RTD Day passes from a kiosk in the Union Station bus terminal, near where we would disembark Bustang. This meant we would not need any cash on our persons, which was good, because I had literally $0 of cash in my wallet. Needing exact fare is one of my reasons for avoiding buses in new cities, so it was convenient to avoid this hindrance. Granted, we did not solve the exact fare problem, just used the easiest workaround on this day.
Bustang operates on the principle that reserved seats are not necessary because of the frequency with which the service is operated (think: a subway that runs every 10 minutes versus an Amtrak train that runs once a day). We targeted the 2nd to last southbound bus, which departed the Harmony Transfer Center at 6:15 AM. If this bus happened to be full, we would catch the 6:45 AM bus.
I tried to drum up a little excitement around #RTDDay in the week leading up to the event, but the Twitter-verse did not take the idea and run with it. I hoped that would change on the day of, but knew we would have a great time regardless. Finally, my alarm went off at 5 AM on Friday, November 20th. I only had one thought (but many times).
I received a text from Colby on my way to the bus station. “Idk where to go? Better Google lol I’m in the big lot” Oh no! Was the schedule we used not valid on Fridays? Were there two Harmony Transfer Centers?! My mind started racing as I pulled into the parking lot and saw Colby standing next to the bus shelter. Fortunately, as I jogged over to Colby at 6:07 AM, so did Bustang. I took almost a dozen a few photos and we boarded by scanning our paper QR code on a device at the top of the stairs. The coach was a 51-seater and was operated by Ace Express Coaches. Six other passengers boarded with us. We jumped around different seats based on outlet location (I later learned there’s one for every seat), proximity to exit row (yes, there’s an exit row!), and distance between rows (the seats were on library-stack-like collapsing tracks). We also connected to the WiFi on our phones and confirmed it was functional. The bus pulled out at 6:19 AM. We were on our way to Denver!
As I was composing tweets to announce the start of our adventure, Colby pointed out that there was a marquee above the driver. “Your tweets should be going up there!” After we confirmed Bustang had some room for improvement on rider engagement via social media, we began to plan our day. We decided we would pass through every station, but would not do so on every train. Many of the light rail stations are visited by multiple-lettered trains. The idea is that two differently lettered trains may use the same track for a distance, but they will diverge at some point. The RTD light rail map consisted of six lines (C, D, E, F, H, and W) and what we thought was 46 stations. While tracking our progress later, we adjusted this number to 45. We could board the C, E, or W, lines at Union Station, our drop off site. We picked the W line to Golden to knock out first. We didn”t know if we would find treasure, but the set of curvy, colored lines that made up the RTD map would call our shots for the next several hours.
The bus picked up 3 more passengers at the Loveland Park and Ride and a short safety video was shown. It was reasonably creative and used the sentence format made popular by airline safety video producers: “If you’ve never ridden a bus before…”. Approaching Denver as a high-occupancy vehicle, we were able to bypass some of the I-25 traffic by cruising through the high-occupancy-vehicle lane. This threw us into LoDo (Lower Downtown, Denver) just south of Coors Field, where we entered the underground bus terminal through a service road on the northwest side of Union Station. We disembarked our first Bustang at 7:26 AM at gate B3. There was even a purple Bustang graphic on the window at the gate, which would help us identify the boarding location for the return trip. Yes, we had gotten up quite early for this trip, but we were dropped off in downtown Denver before 7:30 AM for $10. I was already a fan of Bustang!
Stations Completed: 0. Buses Ridden: 1. Other People On Bustang Who Had Sat Next to Each Other: 0.
Partly because I”d heard it was awesome and partly because I had no idea where the RTD ticket kiosk was, we took the escalators to ground level and explored the gorgeous interior of Union Station. The station reopened after extensive renovations were completed in July 2014, which added The Crawford Hotel on both sides of the Grand Hall. The area was decorated for Christmas and was an infinitely relaxing space. I wanted to sit here all day, but we had a job to do! It also involved sitting all day, but in less-oft romanticized locations.
After taking some photos of the RTD commuter rail trains, whose marquee festively and quite ahead of the game read “Merry Christmas RTD”, we returned to the bus terminal. There, we quickly found the RTD kiosk, purchased our day passes, grabbed what felt like every light rail map ever printed, and headed towards the tracks. Union Station is laid out such that the Amtrak and RTD commuter rails lines are boarded at tracks immediately in the back (northwest) of the building, while the light rail tracks run parallel to these a few blocks to the northwest. The underground bus terminal connects you between these seamlessly, but you can also be at one set of tracks and be confident it is the other/both. We followed the kiosk workers’s directions, validated our day passes at the light rail station, and boarded the W train. We did not have to check the train”s direction of travel, as we were at the eastern end of the W line; it could only go west. The train began moving and we were off! One station down!
Stations Completed: 1. Buses Ridden: 1. Union Station Escalators Ridden: 5.
I noticed the layout of each car was completely different than any other light rail vehicle I had been on. First of all, the cars weren’t low-floor (a common accessibility aide; the link is about buses, but the concept is similar for light rail vehicles). Second, they had exclusively seats that faced each other. Third, these seats were padded. (And I don’t mean old D.C. metro padded, I mean padded padded.) Fourth, they weren’t really seats, but more like benches. Fifth, each bench width was approximately 1.5 persons wide (with no comment on the increasing girth of Americans). The unusual aspect of a car with a high floor throughout its length is that bikers have to carry their bikes up the stairs and stand with them. I saw one man doing this during our ride on the W line, though his helmet and substantial jacket made me think he might have been going to bike to skydiving practice after leaving the train.
RTD”s rolling stock consists of Siemens SD-100 and SD-160 light rail vehicles. I learned after our trip that the reason for the awkward stairs at every door of the vehicle is so that the cars support loading at both street and platform level. I recalled noticing accessible ramps at the stations which would allow wheelchairs to board directly onto floor height. There was even a piece of floor that folded out from the wall to cover the top of the stairs at these doors.
(It was at this point while writing this post that I read that the numbers published by RTD are 46 light rail stations over 48 miles of track. I was dumbfounded! How could we have counted right once, then later counted wrong, then recounted wrong, and then confirmed our recount wrong? The catch is the 18th · California station on the H, F, and D, lines is labeled inconsistently and easy to overlook when you are counting white circles. I’ll talk more about the map and its critics later. Back on the train…)
The westbound W train was at less than half capacity and we settled into the surprisingly comfortable benches for the ride to Golden. The train leaving Union Station passed the Pepsi Center and Sports Authority Field. This arc of light rail was the 3rd section in the system opened, beginning revenue service in April 2002 as part of the Central Platte Valley project. (The currently-operating sections of the light rail [as of December 2015] opened in 1994, 2000, 2002, 2006, and 2013. I’ll discuss each of them as we ride on!) The train crossed the South Platte River and ran along Lakewood Gulch through the neighborhoods west of downtown. At this point, we were riding the newest section of light rail, as the West rail line began service in April 2013.
The tracks took a southward jog to stop at Federal Center. By this point, Colby, who attended the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, had begun pointing out sights on both sides of the tracks. This was a pleasant personal touch for our first route of the day! He spoke of fond memories about his college nights out in LoDo via the then-newly-opened W line. We could tell we were nearing Golden when we saw South Table, a plateau that sits adjacent to the town of Golden. Colby described the shape of the town as “like an hourglass that kind of oozes out at the bottom”. We got off the train and Colby immediately remarked “Smells like Golden!” before telling how you can smell the local Coors Brewery all throughout the town and Mines campus. I could hardly process all this insider knowledge when Colby said “And we called that the Taj Mahal!” while pointing to the Jefferson County Government Center. Since it was barely 8 AM, we decided to give it a quick visit.
Inside, we introduced ourselves to Thomas Jefferson. Since the light rail does not have a dining car, we grabbed some snacks. The coffee kiosk inside the atrium of the government center was called “Legal Grounds”. I chuckled and asked the cashier if she rode the light rail to work. She admitted she did not, but that the drivers often stopped by her food stand and “They seem nice.” Works for me! We stood eating our breakfast burritos looking over the town of Golden and Colby pointed out the Mines bell tower. Since we were by a large bank of windows, it was only a matter of time before the conversation turned philosophical. Colby recommended I check out Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Maybe I’ll read that on a train someday! Colby, after noticing how many notes I had already taken, mentioned that you almost need two trips through the entire light rail: “One to experience it and one to write about it.” I was feeling great about the adventure, so I asked: “What are you doing Monday?”
Stations Completed: 15. Buses Ridden: 1. Bronze Statues Photographed: 1.
We decided not to volunteer for jury duty and exited “The Taj” with our eyes set on our (first) return trip to Denver. The train was three cars long (as were most, but not all, throughout the day) and we were the only passengers in car no. 106B leaving Golden. Before we were out of the station, I noticed a Speed Limit 15 MPH and chuckled. Yes, the trains do have drivers, but I hoped they have some sort of complicated fixed-block signaling (image from a fascinating article about NYC’s MTA signals) techniques beyond a leftover sign from the highway department. Almost immediately, the tracks gained significant elevation while crossing over U.S. 6 and provided an awesome view of the snow-covered foothills to the west.
Yes, it had done this on the westbound trip, but I was probably tweeting or something and didn’t soak in the view properly. After a pleasing view of downtown Denver during the southward jog to Federal Center, we arrived at Oak station. I noticed the stop was adorned with several metal row-type boats placed atop intentionally rusted supports. I assumed this was paying ode to the proximity of the city of Lakewood to Lakewood Gulch and its economic impacts on the community in centuries past. Or maybe it was just art.
I observed that each door contained the entire system map above it (on only one side per opposite pairs of doors, but not the same side at every set of doors….can you picture that??). I thought a horizontal map for the particular line you were riding would be convenient. Part of the difficulty with that is that the trains then become dedicated to a particular line, which decreases the flexibility of the system. It was slightly frustrating to have to stand up and go to a door anytime you want to see a map. Even in the age of ubiquitous cell phones, clearly visible maps inside train cars are a godsend. We began keeping track of the marquee’s behavior when we arrived at stations. A majority of the time, it said “W Line to Union Station”, which was indeed accurate, but kind of too-little too-late, as you were already on board. When we reached a stop, the marquee would briefly say the current station name and the next station name. Yes, it presented all the information, but I was of the opinion that the next stop should be visible the entire ride to the next station.
Speaking of the official RTD map, it isn’t loved by critics. I thought a great point made by Cam Booth at the Transit Maps blog was that the map had to switch orientations with the opening of the W line, and how this would affect future expansions, something that is now relevant. The proposed official map for the 2016 expansion has been released, and it also isn’t loved by critics. RTD is intent on maintaining circular fare zones, which further distorts the accuracy of the routes. Transit maps are an art form, and this discussion barely scratches the surface. One thing I noticed throughout the day is that the current release of the RTD map was reasonably square, yet it was always displayed in skinny spaces across the system. Either on the vertical poles at stations or in the horizontal crown molding space of the trains, the map”s shape caused it to look underwhelming regardless of where it was. Back on the train…
During the inbound W line ride, Colby was musing aloud how he found it interesting to ponder that a family lives their own life in each of the homes near the tracks. He said that every time he stops and thinks this way, it ends with the thought, “Oh. That’s kinda neat.” Neat, indeed! We commented that we had yet to see two people riding together, besides ourselves. As soon as we verbalized this observation, a pair that we guessed were siblings boarded at Sheridan. I saw a large parking garage at Lakewood-Wadsworth, which I guessed was where a sizable number of the morning commuters had left their vehicles a few hours before. Colby remarked that the inbound trains were full while we were outbound, which fits with the end of the morning commute time around 8 AM. As we passed Sports Authority Field and noticed the many-story poster of the no-longer-starting-Broncos-QB Peyton Manning, we decided to complete the C/D Lines next. This was an arbitrary counterclockwise progression through the RTD system and we nodded to each other after the decision as if we had just made a tough call. We got off the train at Auraria to complete the next leg of the trip!
Stations Completed: 15. Buses Ridden: 1. Stations Completed Twice: 12.
At Auraria, we let a W train (the only 2-car I noticed all day) pass without boarding, as we were now focused on the C and D Lines. While this seems simple, some transit systems do not run multiple trains on the same tracks, so this concept does not exist. As I was patting myself on the back for passing a neophyte transit field test, Colby took the following pigeon portrait. Apparently this pigeon didn”t enjoy having his photo taken, because he pecked Colby a few seconds later. Fortunately, a C train pulled into the station and we were able to escape from the vengeful avian!
The highlights of the C line were:
- Me running across the aisle while the train was in motion and finding it much more difficult than I expected.
- The mix of Texas Roadhouse, Super Target, Costco, and other suburban staples you don’t often see during a transit ride.
- A major rolling stock depot before the Englewood station.
- A large parking lot, garage, and neato bridge at the Englewood station. This stop serves the Englewood City Center, an inspiring redevelopment of a shopping mall with a mixed-use downtown. As any transit planners will tell you, the words “mixed-use” are crucial to driving consistent traffic to a transit line.
- The Littleton · Downtown station, which was built to look like an old train depot. I was hoping it was a repurposed old rail station, but it actually opened in 2000. This was at the same time as the rest of the C and D lines south of I-25 · Broadway station, part of the Southwest Corridor project and second segment of the current light rail.
We got off the C train at its “final stop” at Littleton · Mineral and then it continued southward on the track. I hoped it was going to a wrap around or a depot or anything besides an extra light rail station that we didn’t get to pass through. All of a sudden, we were halfway through the RTD light rail!
Stations Completed: 23. Buses Ridden: 1. Community Colleges Passed: (felt like) 15.
We decided to walk around the shopping mall at the Littleton · Mineral station. After riding what felt like the Costco Express, finding a large mall at the end of the line did not surprise me in the slightest. Colby mentioned a movie theatre here called Alamo that serves food during the movies and I asked if he remembered the Alamo theatre. I don’t remember his response, but I assume he chuckled. Before we even reached the mall, we stopped in a bus shelter to check some maps. Something about standing in the shadow of a bus lit our creative side and one of us said “Want to take a bus?!” We decided a great way to change up the scenery would be to take a bus from the end of the C/D line to as close as we could get to the end of the E/F line. This would prevent us from doubling-up on most of the southwest and southeast light rail stations. Google Maps informed me that the 403 bus would take us there. Fortuitously, this was the bus that had just pulled up to the shelter! Little-ton did we know it, but we had just signed up for the most memorable part of the day.
I hopped on board with a confident, yet cautious approach. “Going to Lincoln station?” Notice: all of the quotes from the driver make him sound like an unpleasant and unhelpful man out of context. In reality, he was the exact opposite. I ask that you please read these next few paragraphs with that in mind! His response to my Lincoln station inquiry was: “What does the bus say?” I smirked and said I wasn’t sure. “Get off and look.” Colby and I both started to back out the door and the driver gestured towards Colby and said, “Not you, just him.” We started to see this was a game by this point, and the bus marquee confirmed; it toggled between “403 Wildcat Crosstown” and “Lincoln Station”. Slightly more confident and embarrassed, we sat down. “We sit here for 21 more minutes, then we’ll be on our way.” Twenty-one minutes to sit on a bus in parking lot sounded like the definition of therapeutic to me. (As you may be starting to pick up, I love transit, but I love buses. I”ve got a blog post in the works about this obsession!)
While we waited, there was some small talk between the front-seater and the driver. I couldn’t tell whether the front-seater was a regular, or someone who talked like he knew everyone, but I could respect both. I began listening intently when, referring to the $750,000 fine for assaulting a bus driver, our driver said “Some people can afford that. What they can’t afford is the felony.” Colby was already reading the posted diagram of bus rules and followed this with, “Well I was going to gamble, but I guess I won’t now.” Our conversation about proper bus behavior died down and the driver and front-seater engaged in some stereotypical political commentary full of no substance.
I took advantage of the next lull in the conversation to learn some backstory. “You been driving buses for a while?” He conveyed that this was his 14th year as a Denver bus driver, after 6 months in Topeka. He give an image of that with, “We had a little system that shut down at 6:30.” I responded with something I hoped sounded endearing along the lines of, “That sounds about right.” He informed us that his sister had driven in Denver for 26 years and helped him make some connections when he decide to move west. He “came here to slow down” and gave off the vibe that the plan had worked to perfection. He then went on to describe that he had a 23-year career as a civil engineer working with buildings and transportation in Washington, D.C. As this was my first time conducting an interview with a bus driver, I may have not been 100% free of leading questions during my inquiries. I had detected his enjoyment of both halves of his transit-centric career and said “And now you get to work in the same field and contribute in a new way.” He nodded in agreement: “Yeah.” He described how he viewed public transportation as a need for a city of any size, whereas a lot of the newer drivers just see it as a job, and one that they aren’t thrilled with at that. Colby and I both acknowledged this was a good point and an admirable view as he and the front-seater began to bond over the difficulty they had had(/were having/were anticipating?) quitting smoking.
After 21 minutes, the bus began to move. Yes, that had all taken while we sat in the parking lot on a bus. You see where I’m coming from? Buses are my favorite. Colby tracked our progress on the paper 403 map we had picked up for our map collection. By this point, I was regretting not bringing a filing cabinet for all the transit pamphlets we had acquired. Outside the bus, the suburbs we were driving through were nice, but they were still suburbs. The Highlands Ranch area had significantly more snow on the ground than Fort Collins, or the rest of Denver for that matter. When first person was about to get off the bus, Colby smiled at me and said, “Did you see that? She pulled the cord!” I gave him a look of understanding gained from my years months of riding the Fort Collins bus and said, “I know about this stuff.” The most entertaining part of this chunk of transit was Colby’s unexpected nostalgia. Every other turn or so, there’d be a site he apparently recognized and, from the sounds of it, thought he’d never see again. “There’s a Target right up here……boom look!!” I did find it fascinating that, while this was just a bus ride for me (and I don’t say the sequence of words “just a bus ride” lightly), Colby had personal experiences on the other side of these swinging doors. It was a reminder that while a place may be new to you, it is home for someone else, and a bus or train can be one of those places where you cross paths.
I snapped out of my reflective state to notice some details about the bus. We were riding bus 3974X, which I was 95% confident was manufactured by Gillig. It had the same layout and seat construction as one of the older sets of Fort Collins buses, which I was familiar with as the Gillig Low Floors. While I was completing my inspection, we sat at a bus stop for about two minutes and the driver turned around and asked, “You ever had one of those neighbors who doesn’t rake the leaves in their yard and waits for them to blow into yours?” He was smiling as he said it, so I felt comfortable participating in some cursory commiseration. At the next stop, a woman (of the 4 we had started with, she was the only one remaining besides Colby and I) exited via the front door and shared a nice holiday moment with the driver. This was the weekend before Thanksgiving, so they wished each other well and mumbled something I imagined to be similar to “til the end of holidays do us reconvene”.
I was consistently impressed with the driver’s balance of relaxation (“Man, if I had to work harder than this, I don’t know what the hell I’d be doing,” “I pick this route [every 4 months] because the stress level is very limited”) and attention to detail at his job (“See ya next week!”, “Gotta move…it’s a short light,” “A good driver, they make it look easy!”). I had heard of other Colorado transit agencies having difficulty hiring enough drivers and he indicated this was the case for RTD as well (though he actually worked for a contractor). He summed the climate up with, “RTD’s having problems. Everybody else’s having problems….When you’ve got supervisors driving, there’s a problem.” The man seemed genuinely happy with his job and brightened my day as a result. Colby and I were still the last two on the bus when we arrived at Lincoln Station. It had started to hail outside, yet the driver walked to the station with us to direct us to the restroom. On a day when light rail was the name of the game, a bus driver stole the show. To that Friday afternoon 3974X driver, thanks for everything.
Stations Completed: 23. Buses Ridden: 2. Suburban Bus Rides We Regretted: 0.
There was already an F train waiting at Lincoln station. We took this opportunity to take some portraits for the future transit-focused spin off of LinkedIn. We were overall heading inbound to downtown Denver at this point, but would need to take a quick jog on the H line to cover its two stops that reached a different southwest terminus than the E and F lines. Before we switched to the H line, we passed IKEA, the furniture mega-store. In my mind, an IKEA in the suburbs is reason enough to build an entire transit system. As the big blue box is just north of County Line station, which also contains a large mall, you can easily make that stop a weekend day trip.
The E, F, and H, lines were opened in November 2006 as part of the Southeast Corridor. This was the same time that I-25 and I-225 were widened as part of T-REX, and the new light rail lines were built in an #InterstateGulley with the freeways. On the main E and F lines, the light rail sits on the southwest side of the I-25. We would discover shortly that on the last two H line stations, the light rail actually runs in the middle of I-225. Like I”ve never always said, “The #InterstateGulley is nice, but it’s still an #InterstateGulley.” There was little to no urban charm in this section of track.
(For the record, I think Denver did a great job with the light rail considering the layout of city they were given. When your population density is almost 3 times less than Chicago”s and almost 7 times less than New York City”s, supporting any light rail system and having the foresight to expand it is admirable.)
We again noticed the difficulty in knowing which station you were at while on the train. It was more noticeable during this section of track for two reasons: 1) we actually needed to switch to catch the H line (rather than riding until it stopped, like the general goal for the day), and 2) the marquee on this train read “DENVER” “for the last 30 seconds!”, according to Colby. I paused and laughed for a second, not because of the marquee’s ineffectiveness, but because it gave me the chance to tell Colby, “You’re really getting into this!” Like I’ve never always said, “Ride a train for a day, and you’ll be on board for life.” While stopped at stations, the station names were printed a place or two outside, but we always had to try to find them. I have noticed at underground stations in the past in Washington, D.C., and the likes, some stations have the names affixed to the walls what seems like every 10 feet, so you are never uncertain into which station you are arriving. Denver definitely marks their stations, but a few extra signs outside the trains in station would make the passenger experience simpler.
The area of Denver we were passing through was full of office buildings residents could ride the train to and park-n-rides other residents could ride the train from. I came up with the term “Office Park-n-Rides” to describe this area. We passed a substantial Charles Schwab campus near Lincoln station, and I noticed a large Nationwide building looming over the same station. At Bellevue, the last station before the E and F lines joined the H line, there is the Denver Tech Center. This is a major economic center and one of the key reasons for the T-REX project which brought the light rail to this area.
To transfer to the H line, we disembarked the F train at Southmoor station. We waited on the platform in between a concrete wall and many lanes of traffic at this #InterstateGulley station. (Can you tell I just love urban freeways?) The H train came after a few minutes and we rode the two stops to Nine Mile station. I had actually heard of this station from a friend whose family lives in Denver, so I was excited to experience it. Its station layout is called an “island platform”, in that there is a single platform in between two tracks. We had a 12-minute layover before the next inbound train and the wind had turned cold at platform level, so we took the elevator down to explore the station. There were several bus bays, a large parking garage, and……a skatepark? Okay, so the tunnel under the tracks and I-225 isn’t actually a skatepark, but its sloped walls scream such. When I saw the “No Skateboarding” sign, I thought of what I had read in “The Design of Everyday Things” which made a point I paraphrased as, “If you design something well, you don’t need instructions on how to use it.” Maybe this tunnel wasn’t designed well, or maybe it just wasn’t an everyday thing. Colby and I had fun running up and down the sides of the walls on foot, as we saw no signs discouraging such.
Stations Completed: 32. Buses Ridden: 2. Degrees Fahrenheit the Temperature Had Dropped Since Golden: 17. Degrees Fahrenheit the Wind Chill Had Dropped Since Golden: (felt like) 45.
We boarded an inbound H train and noticed a great view leaving Nine Mile. There was a striking contrast between the Rocky Mountains in the distance and the Nine Mile parking garage in the foreground. As we reached the #InterstateGulley section of track, we noticed our train had matched speeds with a northbound Bustang on I-25! The bus eventually pulled ahead, but we rejoiced in seeing our favorite animal-bus in the wild. As we neared to the University of Denver station, the train began filling with a slightly younger crowd, presumably due to our proximity to the, you guessed it, University of Denver. With more people boarding the train and more people using headphones to keep to themselves, Colby commented that he would probably use headphones if he rode the train everyday. “I’m not sure what ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ would think about that,” he then said. I tried to give all parties plausible deniability: “That”s why Dale Carnegie specifically wrote that book before headphones were popular!” We passed the Louisiana · Pearl station and I commented how that sounds like the name of an Amtrak route. I could imaging the following exchange: “How are y’all getting to New Orleans?” “We’re catching the Louisiana Pearl in Birmingham!”
Stations Completed: 36. Buses Ridden: 2. Minutes Since We Last Passed A Station Not Running Along An Interstate: 210.
At the I-25 · Broadway station, we had our tickets checked for the first time. The officer who checked ours had a badge on his uniform that led me to believe he was a security contractor, not an RTD employee. He thanked Colby and I for validating our day passes. When I asked if people forget often he said, “Intentionally, so they can keep using them….until they get caught!” I thanked him for his vigilance and he moved on. I was honestly quite pleased to see this check. I have been riding the MAX bus rapid transit regularly in Fort Collins for more than three months now and have yet to have my ticket checked. It operates on a similar principle of the honor system for boarding with tickets and, in theory, a similar system of ticket checks.
We decided to switch to the D line at Theatre District · Convention Center, just inside the southern edge of downtown. The D line would be our last line needed to complete the circuit! We had also begun simmering on our late-lunch plans. The Cheesecake Factory was mentioned about, but we decided on Wynkoop Brewing. I had heard about its role in revitalizing LoDo and Colby spoke good words of past experiences there, so we chose the brewpub as our celebration station. It was also across from Union Station, where we would catch our return trip on Bustang.
First, we still needed to switch trains at the Theatre station. This was in a cold and windy concrete cave under what seemed to be part of the Colorado Convention Center. We watched the arrivals board and it said a D train would arrive in about 10 minutes. (I noticed how the signs showed a predicted arrival time, rather than predicted number of minutes until arrival; I know those are almost the same information, but a time meant I had to keep checking my phone for the actual time, rather than just watching the minutes count down.) After the train didn’t come at the time it said, it disappeared from the arrivals board. We stepped into a Which Wich to warm up and found it filled with conference attendees sporting American Anthropological Association name badges. Just stepping out from under the concrete cave gave me a new breath of city life. Unfortunately, as soon as we had stepped into the restaurant, the D train we had been waiting on came and went as we watched from a distance. Apparently, the arrivals board was programmed to only show arrivals if their expected time was in the future. This again illustrated why I prefer labeling by minutes until arrival, because until a train has actually arrived, that number cannot hit zero/Approaching/Due.
After taking a photo with the convention center mascot, we were finally able to board an inbound D train and begin to make our way around the loop. (Do they call it that? It’s not as substantial or elevated or awesome as Chicago’s, but its general shape is still a loop.) This section of track was part of the original Central Corridor light rail that opened in October 1994. On the northeast corner of the loop, the D line takes a small spur out to its terminus at 30th · Downing. The last 5 blocks of the route ran along Welton Street and were, unexpectedly, some of my favorite of the whole day. The train had to stop at stoplights, but we were riding through an actual area of city. It wasn’t upscale, but it was an organic urban area with restaurants, Denver’s equivalent of a rowhouse, and a few boarded up windows. At the terminus, the “D-Line Restaurant” had a name that was liked by us, but apparently not by enough others. Colby described the scene well: “So good it’s for sale!” There were a few bus connections at the 30th · Downing station, which reminded me that as a whole, RTD does a great job placing relevant bus connections at the larger light rail stations. We got off the outbound train and immediately walked around to catch the inbound train. It seemed like other people did the same. Maybe we weren”t the only light-railers on this day!
Stations Completed: 44. Buses Ridden: 2. Minutes Spent at the Northern End of the D Line: 1.
We hopped back on the inbound D line train, and, by this point, we only had 2 unvisited stations remaining! As we passed the 18th · Stout station, we noticed some large stone pillars that I later learned was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit building. Such architecture turned our last train conversation to public economics with a focus on higher education. I was really interested in the conversation, but we had to cut the discussion short as we arrived at our last station, 16th · Stout. Pulling into this station, Colby gave me a big high five. We had reached all 46 Denver light rail stations!
I hopped off the train with a spring in my step, but it didn”t last long. Something didn’t feel quite right. Yes, we were at the 46th station, but I noticed the train we had just gotten off was wrapped in a Draft Kings advertisement. While this was not reason enough to subdue our celebration, I realized my reason for uncertainty: we had left a section of track unridden. We had not ridden a train between 16th · Stout and Theatre District · Convention Center! I indicated my disdain to Colby and he was on board with whatever I needed to do to satisfy my sense of completion. Looking back now, I’m a bit surprised he didn’t just wait on 16th Street for me to return mentally satisfied.
Stations Completed: 46. Buses Ridden: 2. Sections of Track Unvisited: 1.
With renewed camaraderie, we boarded the next arriving train (an H train), rode one stop, and got off elated. The spring in my step from before was now even springier. We took the opportunity to take some celebratory photos with street signs (what else?). The entire light rail challenge had only taken 6 hours! If I had been slightly more clever and slightly less in-the-moment, I may have tweeted “#RTDDay = #RTDDone”.
Stations Completed: 46. Buses Ridden: 2. Sections of Track Unvisited: 0.
Our completed route map was indeed satisfyingly counterclockwise and unintentionally resembled a Christmas ornament.
On our way to rekooperate at Wynkoop, we hopped on the 16th Street Free MallRide bus, another RTD service. Ironically, this was the most crowded transit vehicle of the day. It is low-floor throughout its length, as it is designed for a largely tourist crowd to hop on and off quickly and without payment. We completed our quick hop off at the corner of 16th and Wynkoop, the street, and walked the couple blocks to Wynkoop, the brewery. After figuring out where we could actually sit in the funny-shaped and oddly-full-for-a-Friday-midday bar, we did a quick Google query for which of their ales was the flagship. We quickly learned that President Obama made a visit to Wynkoop with with Colorado governor and Wynkoop Brewing founder, John Hickenlooper, and they both drank Rail Yard Amber Ale. If a president chosing that beer wasn’t enough, the fact that it was named after a transportation mode sealed the deal for me.
Stations Completed: 46. Buses Ridden: 3. Beers Also Consumed by Obama: 1.
Colby and I enjoyed our ales in the warm brewery and began to reflect on the day’s adventure. Colby made a great point that he hoped we had half as much impact on our 403 bus driver’s day as he had had on ours. On a day filled with riding light rails, our most personal experience had occurred on a bus. We realized that the closest we had come to talking to another passenger on the train (we had decided not to force conversation) was when I sneezed on the inbound W train and a camouflage-covered girl two rows away had said “Bless you!” Even though she was wearing camo, Colby and I had both noticed she seemed to be visually curious about our actions. I can only assume it was because she’d never seen two guys looking at three paper light rail maps while riding around Federal Center.
By this point in our reflections, a light snow had begun falling outside the Wynkoop windows. We ran to the window to inspect a different form of RTD bus twice. One was boldly labeled as a hybrid, another was the Free MetroRide (which runs between Civic Center Station and Union Station), and neither are in the next photo.
Colby and I made a game out of figuring out whether the guy and gal next to us were on a date or not. (For backstory, during the inaugural Fort Collins Public Transit Enthusiasts meetup, which was attended by only Colby and I, I showed up and asked, “Instead of a bus meetup, do you want to just do a ‘Let’s figure out why all these people are at the bar’ meetup?” It was a tradition of ours.) We began listening in over their shared distaste of social media and how they both had experiences with dates looking worse than expected, a product of cleverly-taken profile photos. The guy expanded on this to say, “Yeah? I have a fake Facebook. I add my dates on there to make sure they look good enough to take out!” While we were glad when they asked for separate checks and left as it meant we could begin our verbal analysis, it left us even more confused as to their standing. A few other entertaining lines exchanged by this pair were “Does your Person A know about me?”, and “[Your friend] seems she would be one of those people who would be in…….plays.” In response to this last quote, the girl sat with her arms raised defensively and awkwardly for so long that I wanted to run over and give her a high five. We never figured out exactly their relationship, but we did noticed they walked the same way out the front door of the brewery. Hopefully they were on their way to a bus.
Before we went upstairs to partake in Wynkoop’s expansive pool hall, I asked the bartender about the Obama story. He said his visit was just over a year prior to ours and pointed us to a photo of Barack with the Wynkoop mascot, a large gorilla. The natural next step was to take the same portrait with the gorilla, and now I have a presidential memory from #RTDDay.
Stations Completed: 46. Buses Ridden: 3. Bronze Statues Photographed: 2.
We played a surprisingly-competitive game of pool and noticed it was time to return to Union Station. There were four northbound buses in the evening, but we decided to catch the first one, the 4:30 PM bus, as we had plans in Fort Collins that evening. When we arrived back at the Union Station Bus Terminal ten minutes before departure, we found a small line at gate B3 for the next Bustang. The bus that was sitting outside the gate indicated it was Colorado Springs-bound, and we smiled in relief that we hadn’t hopped on that bus without checking the display.
I scanned my ticket on the next bus and a driver wearing a Bustang-purple short-sleeved button-up shirt and a black leather vest asked me where I was headed. I thought for a second and then said, “Harmony!” He confided that he wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to say Springs and I smiled at my guardian bus driver. Our Bustang pulled out of the underground bus terminal at 4:35 PM. Leaving LoDo, I noticed a newly-opened downtown King Soopers, a Colorado brand of Kroger grocery stores. This excited me, as it was another step to the continued revitalization of LoDo. As we passed Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies and one of my favorite locations during baseball season, Colby and I had a solid discussion about the trade-offs between driving and taking Bustang to Denver. Including price of gas and mental stress, we decided Bustang was absolutely worth the $10 pricetag for a one-way trip. Our next two lines after this discussion were Colby saying, “I feel like sleeping”, followed by me saying, “I feel like tweeting.” We zipped past some of the evening traffic in the HOV lane, before the HOV lane ended and we were dumped in with the rest of the private automobiles. This traffic did not hinder us much, as we made good time the rest of the journey to Fort Collins. When Colby got up to use the restroom on Bustang, I asked him to tell me how it was so we could complete our review of the service. He came back surprised that it was occupied. He tried again a few minutes later and gave me a thumbs up, a big smile, and said, “The door goes the other way!” For all you potential Bustang-ers out there, Colby’s official review of the bathroom was, “I was very satisfied with that bathroom.” You heard it here first!
Our Bustang arrived back at the Harmony Transfer Center at 5:43 PM. The driver informed us that he would make another stop at the Downtown Transit Center (now you decide to go there!), but I thanked him and said our cars were here. Coincidentally, I ended up driving immediately behind the bus most of the way into downtown Fort Collins.
Our entire #RTDDay adventure had taken 12 hours. We had experienced 46 light rail stations, 6 light rail lines, 1 suburban bus, 1 downtown brewpub, and 1 commuter bus service in arguably the most advanced transit core in the west. The public transit enthusiast and urban adventurer in me was on row 9 (it’s like cloud 9, but for transit fans). I did not have any concrete ideas at the time, but I knew I would return to the Fort Collins system with a better understanding of what Transfort does well and what it can improve upon. The rest of the weekend, I had visions of becoming a Transfort bus spotter and even completing similar transit challenges in other cities!
Colby, thanks for joining me on our adventure! Hopefully you enjoyed experiencing a familiar city from a new point of view.
#RTDDay made me even more excited for the opening of the A, B, G, and R lines in 2016. If everything goes well, I will get to do a similar challenge this time next year! If you have any recommendations for #RTDDay2016, please contact me! If there are any public transit enthusiasts out there who want to meet up on a train or bus somewhere, drop me a line and I’ll see when my travels take me to your transit system.
Stations Completed: 46. Buses Ridden: 4. Transit Systems Completed in One Day: 1.
Until next time, ride on!