Commentary

I took the RTD Rail Challenge. Here’s what I learned.

There is room for improvements, but also much to appreciate about Denver’s light rail system

September 6, 2022 4:30 am

An RTD light rail travels west from downtown Denver on Aug. 28, 2022. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

The Regional Transportation District has 74 rail stations. In about eight hours and 30 minutes, I set what is believed to be the record and visited all of them.

On Aug. 24, 2022, I embarked on what has been dubbed the RTD Rail Challenge. Similar to New York City’s Subway Challenge or London’s Tube Challenge, the goal of the RTD Rail Challenge is to ride through the entire RTD rail system as quickly as possible. I was inspired to do this to promote the month of free fares under RTD’s Zero Fare for Better Air campaign.

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I left Jefferson County Government Center at 7:26 a.m. according to plan. I made my way to downtown Denver and then back out to the suburbs (and then I did it again and again), until finally ended up at Eastlake and 124th on the N Line at 3:56 p.m.

I don’t drive, so I’m no stranger to RTD, but seeing the totality of the rail system in one day gave me a newfound appreciation for what was built. I remember seeing the skyscrapers of downtown giving way to fields with cows in Lone Tree — all of this accessible by RTD’s rails.

I don’t drive, so I’m no stranger to RTD, but seeing the totality of the rail system in one day gave me a newfound appreciation for what was built.

And although RTD’s operations in recent years have been plagued with staffing issues, which have caused cancellations, every one of my 16 transfers worked out perfectly. While the schedules are not perfect, there is something to appreciate about the sheer abundance of trains.

I spent some of my formative years in southern California, where “commuter rail” meant a train that came every hour or so during peak commute hours, and that was it. Being able to hop on the G Line midday out to Ward Road isn’t something we should take for granted. With how my journey was planned out, I never had to wait more than half an hour for a train.

Anecdotally, it did seem that ridership was up during the month of free fares. I was always sharing the train cars with other fellow commuters who were also being shuttled from one station to the next. It was nice to see the rail system getting usage.

I even bumped into some friends on the train, many of whom just happened to be taking the train the same time I was. I truly believe using a region’s public transportation system is a part of feeling a sense of community to the area. While the data is yet to be released, it seems that this month of zero fares has improved that feeling of community throughout the Denver metro area.

With all that being said, RTD does, of course, have areas it can improve, especially if it wants to encourage drivers to get out of their cars. While it is generally easy to just sit back and relax on the train, one of the most difficult parts of the challenge was the lack of restrooms near RTD stations. I purposefully kept myself dehydrated so as to not need the restrooms.

There is also a lack of amenities in terms of shelter. At the Interstate 25 and Broadway station, a major transfer station, there are three platforms for rail passengers to wait at, but shelters are only provided on one of them. Denver famously gets a lot of sun, but if you want respite from that sun at I-25 and Broadway, that means you might have to wait on the wrong platform and possibly miss your train.

Other stations, like Alameda, simply give you no choice. There are no shelters on the platform, which means in winter months, you might just get snowed on.

Some people have asked me why I did the challenge. I love riding the train, and I guess I was up for the challenge. After all, there aren’t too many challenges you can complete for free while sitting back and watching the Colorado scenery go by.

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Justin Bai
Justin Bai

Justin Bai is a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder and an advocate for public transportation.

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