I was in Denver this past week for the annual Rail-Volution transit and land use conference, my fourth at this extremely valuable get-together of public transit planners and operators, urban land use specialists, and public mobility policy experts. Preparing for my trip, naturally I made plans to get between the remote Denver airport and downtown using public transit. In the past I have rented a car or used taxi and shared ride services for the same trip.
Halleluiah! I thought, as I planned. No more expensive tollways in a rental car. That is, if the train actually worked.
It did. I was delighted with my public transit train experience both arriving and departing. In fact, I was astonished at how quick, convenient, and cheap it was to use the new train that connects DEN Airport to the city of Denver.
DIA, as it’s known to locals—DEN to you and me—was first studied in 1980-83, and the site 25 miles east-northeast of downtown Denver was initially funded in 1989. After huge budget overruns—at $4.8 billion, almost two billion more than forecast—the gigantic new field opened twenty-two years ago (in early 1995) to replace venerable Stapleton Airport. This followed the debacle of its rogue luggage handling system, which famously chewed up some bags and sent others flying through the air.
DIA’s 33,500 acres make it the largest airport landowner in the country by a good margin. Today’s six non-intersecting runways will eventually be expanded to twelve non-intersecting runways, and the airport will still have 17,000 acres remaining for expansion. Now that’s good long-range planning for the future!
You’d think that spending nearly $5 billion and having the foresight to acquire enough land for 100 years of airport growth would have included a public transit link to get the long 25 miles into central Denver. But no, nothing.
Finally, though, 21 years after opening, the airport has a commuter train operating to Denver Union Station. Service began in April, 2016. Better late than never.
The University of Colorado A-Line train (naming rights were sold to UofC for five years at $1,000,000 per year) is operated by RTD (Regional Transportation District), the huge transit agency that handles all Denver-area public transportation. The “A” in A-Line refers proudly to service to the airport. In this political era of desert-like public infrastructure spending austerity, the project needed a layer-cake approach of P3 (Public-Private Partnership) funding to agglomerate the $2.3 billion total cost (or thereabouts—cost reports vary), which at $96 million per mile actually isn’t bad these days.
The trains make the 24-mile journey between DIA and DUS (newly refurbished Denver Union Station in the heart of downtown) in 37 minutes at a reasonable fare of $9.00 (half that for seniors) departing in both directions every 15 minutes. Convenient and cheap. But reliable, safe, comfortable, doable? The answer to all, with one or two minor glitches, is a resounding “yes.”
Here is my experience in minute detail from real-time notes I took. Rereading this, I find it remarkable:
Left my room (879) at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel at 0531
Checked out of Sheraton (the Rail-Volution conference hotel) at 0534
Arrived 16th St. Mallride stop at Court St across from the Sheraton at 0537
16th St. Mallride bus (free bus ride on 16th St. since 1982) picked up at Court St at 0541
16th St. Mallride bus arrived Wyndott St for walk to DUS (Denver Union Station) at 0550
Arrived DUS A-Line commuter train to airport platform at 0554
A-Line train departed DUS at 0600
A-Line train arrived DIA 2 mins. early at 0635
EXACTLY 58 MINS FROM HOTEL TO AIRPORT
Lingered on platform for 5 mins to take pictures
Arrived TSA Pre line at 0644
Through security at 0648
Arrived gate A30 for 0745 Delta departure at 0657
HOTEL ROOM TO DEN AIRPORT GATE IN 1 HOUR, 26 MINUTES USING PUBLIC TRANSIT
COST: $9.00 ($4.50 SENIORS OVER 65)
Can’t beat that time and money bargain in 2017 in Denver. My notes re the transit trip:
- A chilly 43 F. this morning with a stiff wind. Felt like 23. I imagine the same trip in midwinter could be brutal and would require considerable layers of cold-weather clothes and outer garments.
- From the A-Line platform at DIA, one must take a looooooong, [breath] loooooooong escalator (think London Tube station-long escalators) up to the airport entrance. It’s a five-story, flippin’ wind tunnel like I’ve never experienced. And that morning fierce wind blew, making the long escalator ride frigid. I cannot imagine what that ride must feel like in mid-winter. Even dressed in a suit coat, I was shivering halfway up, and it was only 43 F.
- The airport station has only four ticket machines, two that take cash, and two for credit cards. There were lines at the cash machines, and one of the two credit card machines was broken. The other was having a tough time reading the stripe on cards. Why would they have such great service, and yet cheap out on the ticket machines and not keep them operable? Seems short-sighted, and doesn’t send a good signal to first-time users that Denver is serious about welcoming visitors.
- The Denver Airport station is in a gulf hollowed out below the Westin Hotel, with a swooping, artistic roof that covers some, but not all, of the train platform. Well, sort of a roof—designed and rendered more for art than for function. It is dramatic, like having an overhead sculpture as you approach the trains on the platform, but it is wide open to the elements, and even today at just 43 degrees, the wind is whipping through the funnel of the man-made gully and cuts through you. What must this feel like in February? It makes me cold just thinking about it.
- Ditto for a similar swooping “roof” over the train platforms at Denver Union Station. The city spent $200 million to spiff up the gorgeous 1908 train station, but the platform “roof” treatment, though beautiful and in the same motif as DEN Airport, is entirely for appearances. When the snow flies and the winds howl down from the Rockies, no sane person would dare linger on the platforms waiting for the A-Line trains. Would I be so anxious to make my way on foot with my roller bag and laptop bag from hotel to the 16th Street Mallride bus to DUS and then from the train platform at DEN through the wind tunnel escalator? I don’t know, but the thought doesn’t excite me as much as this week’s lovely experience in mild weather. Maybe I am envisioning a nonevent because the airport may close during extreme weather.
Okay, so the A-Line train service may be challenging in small ways. Still, I give RTD credit for launching and executing a long-overdue connection from the airport to the heart of downtown Denver. It has some teething problems (I haven’t even mentioned the fact that every at-grade rail-highway crossing has 24/7 flaggers due to persistent software glitches), but the trains ran on time for me, and I am confident such minor systemic issues will be worked out.
Meantime, as I said above: Halleluiah! If you are headed anywhere in the Denver metro area connected to the big RTD transit network of light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and regular bus services, cancel your Hertz or Avis reservation, and take the A-Line train instead.