by John Kiljan
[updated 21 October 2016]
Starting November 1st, travellers who have been using Ride Provide’s A-Line van shuttle service to the airport that now leaves from the Olde Town Park & Ride on an hourly basis, will have to find another way to get to the Denver International Airport (DIA). That new way was supposed to have been via the new G-Line commuter rail service (also known as the Gold Line). The Gold Line was originally scheduled to start up at the end of this month. But now that’s not going to happen. The Gold Line will not be up and running in time to take on the regular A-Line shuttle passengers when their service ends.
Gold Line or not, the A-Line shuttle service will be shutting down on October 31st. Until the G-Line actually does start up, there will be an indefinite gap in available low-cost passenger service to DIA from central Arvada. This will affect not only air travellers but also airport workers who have been using the service for years to get to their jobs. This article is being posted to tell A-Line users why that’s happening and to outline what other travel options are available for trips to and from DIA during this gap in service.
WHAT’S GONE WRONG
It’s hard for anyone living in central Arvada not to notice something isn’t quite right with our upcoming commuter rail line. The grand opening celebration that had been tentatively scheduled for October 29th and 30th, the request for event volunteers, all the nifty testing of the line with rail cars going back and forth, train horns sounding their passing, gates going up and down, monitors carefully noting how everything worked when a train passed – all of that has stopped.
Only the five or so trains a day that use the adjacent BN line (going mostly to the Coors brewery) are moving down the track. And now what we have are a pair of 24/7 crossing monitors at each BN/G-Line at-grade railroad crossing. The G-Line rail cars are nowhere to be seen, but the crossing flaggers/monitors are still needed for our safety when the few BN trains do pass by. It’s hard not to be sympathetic with these flaggers. They must be bored out of their heads sitting in lawn chairs all day and night with little to do except to watch, listen, read books, worry about people who might cause them harm in the night, and trying to keep warm.
And we also have the Denver Post articles about the problems RTD’s other A-Line commuter rail line is having – not the similarly named Ride Provide A-line shuttle, but the RTD train that runs from Denver Union Station (DUS) in downtown Denver to DIA itself. That longer line has suffered frequent hardware and software failures in its first months of operation, causing aggravating delays to those trying to reach DIA on time. And the two lines’ problems seem to be related. They are being designed, built and operated by the same contractor.
RTD isn’t saying much except that the G-Line is expected to open up sometime between November 1st and December 21st. That’s potentially a pretty big gap in service. And it covers two of the busiest holiday travel seasons of the year, Thanksgiving and Christmas, for those needing to get to DIA. News articles (and, of course, rumors) provide more information. And I would not be surprised to see and even longer delays before the G-Line begins taking on paying passengers. I shiver at even the thought of a ribbon cutting in the snow on a blustery January day.
And the blame is not even with RTD. The contractor building both the G-Line and A-Line is more than a hired construction contractor, but is also a financial partner, one that is investing its own money to build, operate and maintain the two railway lines that will be taking many metro-area residents to DIA for decades to come. The consortium of companies building both lines is Denver Transit Partners (DTP) and they have to meet some pretty strict performance goals under their public-private partnership agreement with RTD.
RTD has already fined DTP for the delays caused by the faults on the A-Line from DUS to DIA, but that is probably the least of their problems. It’s the DTP who is paying for that small army of day-and-night crossing monitors while they get the bugs worked out of their crossing gate problems. And after that, they still have to wait until the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decide the Gold Line is safe enough to operate and take on passengers.
Although the problems with the DUS to DIA A-line have involved hardware problems such as handling lightning strikes, rumors coming from the crossing guards has it that the problems with the G-Line are primarily with software that either causes the gates to come down too soon, or to stay down too long, or to come down when not needed at all. DTP is supposed to be using the same software and programming for the A-Line as it uses for the G-Line. And these are all guaranteed to be real rumors.
But if that turns out to be the case, there is no telling when the line’s testing will begin again and the Gold Line will finally be opened up for service. I’m not going to complain. I just want a safe rail line, and considering the bills they are footing and the operating revenue they are losing, I expect DTP is even more highly motived to get this train moving down the tracks than most of us are.
Channel 7 recently published a short article with a short video about the Gold Line delay. You can read that at this link:
And there is another article by the Denver Post telling what RTD is saying the problems are at this link:
So that brings us back to our immediate problem: reliably getting to DIA on time and at a reasonable cost.
WHY CAN’T THE A-LINE SHUTTLE JUST KEEP RUNNING IN THE MEANTIME?
The short answer is that it can’t keep running because it needs drivers, maintained vans, funding for its fixed costs, and an operating budget. Ride Provide is rapidly running out of all of those. The drivers are the key need. Those loyal employees need to be looking for new work as the peak holiday season starts. Without a definite service cutoff date, losing that seasonal employment opportunity can make the difference on whether or not they have a job this winter.
Much of the maintenance on the vans has been cut back which could affect their reliability if they run past October. And some drivers have already left for other jobs. I’m just hoping the A-Line will make it to end of the month. General Manager Shelley Cook put it best when she said, “we’re crawling to the finish line”.
Arvada’s Ride Provide’s A-Line shuttle service to DIA has been operated as a private non-profit organization whose operating expenses have been subsidized by RTD for many years. Its vans have had easy access to RTD’s Arvada Park & Ride and it gets a discount on access fees to the airport because of that partnership. All of that ends when the G-Line starts its operations. If the shuttle service were to continue, it would be in competition with the G-Line and it could no longer share RTD’s facilities and it would have to charge much higher rates than the $13 a trip it does now versus the $9 per trip fee that RTD will be charging to use the Gold Line to get to DIA with a change at DUS.
[update: 21 October 2016]
I recently got this note from General Manager Shelley Cook on the A-Line’s shuttle service.
“A couple of corrections – we ARE maintaining the vans (and how!) – we’re just not replacing them as we had. The whole inventory is old. Also, we have funding and a nest egg, but the final two months’ funding for 2017 is earmarked as an incentive, promised to the employees in return for staying until the very end. It’s meant to provide a cushion for them, give them a little more time to find other employment.”
“PS – the two months of subsidy equals one month of pay for the employees. That’s the incentive amount.”
Also, there is a new article posted by Channel 4 that has this quote:
“Cook said about continuing service beyond Oct. 31. ‘My decision and our board’s decision is that we wouldn’t. You need full staffing; you need reliable vehicles. This van has almost 400,000 miles on it. It’s two years old. Our employees are moving on. Some of them have jobs that start, or are predicated on a Nov. 1 ramp up.’”
You can view the full Channel 4 article, and its video, at this link. I highly recommend taking the time to do that.
[end of update]
SO WHAT ARE THE OTHER GETTING-TO-DIA OPTIONS?
Some are obvious. Let’s start with the highest cost. Take a taxi. It’s quick, simple and usually trouble free. It’s been awhile since I’ve done that. I usually only take a taxi to or from DIA when I have a very early, or very late, flight during the hours when the A-Line doesn’t run. You can call the taxi companies to ask for an estimate, but be sure to add in a driver gratuity when you budget for the trip. The last taxi I took to DIA from Arvada cost about $100 with a tip. Still, it’s a door-to-door service and you are only likely to be needing it for a couple of months.
But it’s also a new digital age. If you have a smart phone and a credit card, you can download an app onto it that lets you hire a private (but sort of pre-vetted) driver to take you to the airport from your doorstep. I don’t have a smart phone and I’ve never tried it. (My wife has a smart phone, but I can’t figure out how to use it, and she won’t teach me.)
But those who have used services like Uber have told me they like it and will never take a regular taxi again if they can help it. The costs for Uber and its competitor, Lyft, are said to be about 2/3rds the cost of a regular PUC-regulated taxi ride. But, they are also said to use a demand-based pricing scheme where you are charged a lot more during peak travel-demand periods, and you could end up paying just as much (or more) than you would for a taxi ride to the airport.
And, of course, you can simply fight cross-town traffic and drive to the airport yourself and then park in one of the outlying lots. Those lots have regular shuttles running night and day to take you to the real airport if you are willing to wait 15 minutes in the winter cold,with the wind blowing over that prairie for one to show up.
The DIA close-in lots are another option. They are a bit pricy for more than just a day or two’s stay, and they often seem to be so full that you can spend quite a bit of time looking for a place to park. But at least you can walk directly into the terminal from many of those parking spaces – unless the only available spaces are the ones farther out. In which case, you are likely to be waiting for a shuttle anyway.
And if you are going to have to get in your car and drive in any event, there are some other much cheaper alternatives that pop up. The first is an inexpensive service called the Flatiron Flyer at $9. It’s run by RTD as a part of its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. It leaves from 88th and Sheridan, and I don’t know what the security is like for cars left at that station. It runs every 15 minutes most of the day and night. Unfortunately, the FF1 Flatiron Flyer won’t take you to DIA, but it will instead take you to Denver Union Station where you can take the A-Line commuter rail to DIA itself. Here’s the link to finding out about the service:
And if you are going to be changing at DUS anyway, the other RTD option is the B-Line train station at 71st and Hooker. That’s near Federal Boulevard and about the same driving distance as to the Flatiron Flyer from central Arvada. I don’t know what parking is like there, and that train takes you to DUS as well.
If you are willing to drive twice as far, or you are living on the west side of Arvada, the RTD bus service leaving from the Flatirons Crossing park-and-ride in Superior is worth considering. Its chief advantages are that it is non-stop directly to DIA, it’s also only $9 ($4.50 for seniors), it’s fast, it doesn’t rely on a train at all, it operates every hour (or more often) and it runs well into the night. That’s a big plus if your plane gets in late after a horrible day of missed flight connections – something that seems to happen to me about half the time when I travel.
It’s called the Skyride AB line and you get to it by driving north on Indiana and then onto McCaslin until you hit US 36. Here’s the link to its schedule:
There may be other options that I’m missing here. I left out the W-Line light rail service to Golden because I think it drops you off a couple of blocks from DUS, which is too far if you have a lot of luggage or feel unsafe in that part of town.
If this all seems like too much to deal with, think of the good things that have happened and are happening. We’ve enjoyed a decade and a half of a great, reliable and low-cost shuttle service to DIA that we nearly didn’t get at all when RTD shut down its “AA” airport bus to Arvada. When we do finally get the G-Line running, it is likely to be more reliable than the RTD A-Line has been so far. And problems with the A-Line commuter rail line on the second leg of our airport journey are likely to be much less.
And, best of all, we will finally be getting the rail service that most of voted for a decade ago and have been paying for ever since!
WHERE TO FIND OUT MORE
Ride Provide has been putting out regular information on what to do about their service ending. Here are the links to a few of those postings:
First Friday Dry Runs
RTD has also given Ride Provide some free passes for using the new rail lines so groups could learn how to handle the change of trains at DUS. Some of those may still be available, and if you have a group, you might try calling them at 303-420-2589 to see if there are any still left.
And finally, for an article about the ethics involved in using non-PUC-regulated taxi services and what that might mean for taxi services in the metro area, this article is worth having a look at:
October 20, 2016