Driving You Crazy: Why doesn't RTD put railway crossing gates on the streets in Downtown Denver?

I was stuck on the track and almost hit by a train
Posted at 7:07 AM, Nov 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-29 09:12:03-05

Roger from Denver writes, “Why is RTD not required to put railway crossing guard gates on the streets in downtown where the trains cross over like the larger railroads do? I was downtown following traffic next to the performing arts center and turned the corner and the cars in front of me stopped at a stop light and I just happened to be on the light rail tracks with a car behind me so I was stuck and a light rail train coming out of the tunnel blaring it's horn and hitting it's breaks. I could see the conductors face. It's a good thing the light changed and I was able to move before the train got there otherwise he would have hit me. I think that crossing gates that close the road just before the train gets there would solve this problem.”

Roger, I took your question to Scott Reed, the Assistant General Manager for Communications for RTD. He told me the decision to not install crossing gates when the light rail was built in downtown Denver was because it would be more complicated to have the crossing gates in a congested area where pedestrians and vehicles intermingle.

“Crossing gates are used primarily in areas where there are fewer traffic signals and where the directly intersecting streets/roads have higher speeds than in the heart of a downtown area,” Reed said.

The other problem with crossing arms in downtown Denver are the space constraints, Reed explained.

“The width of intersections and the complex traffic movements involving autos, buses, trains, pedestrians and bicyclists in a downtown area make the installation of crossing gates very problematic,” Reed said.

The central corridor section of the RTD light rail system opened in 1994 and runs through downtown Denver along surface streets. Back then, Denver was much a much smaller city with fewer drivers on the downtown streets.

More specifically, at the crossing you experienced a near miss, at Stout and Speer, Reed said, “The intersection you mentioned is clearly marked and properly signaled, but we do understand that auto drivers sometimes encroach upon the intersection area, which is why our train operators are careful approaching those areas and they do often need to use the horn to alert auto drivers.”

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I read through all the Accident Report Summaries that are prepared by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) using data provided by RTD from January 2014 through September 2016. The PUC is the primary state agency responsible for safety at all public highway-rail crossings in Colorado including light rail.

In 2016, the majority of incidents involving vehicles and trains occurred either next to the Convention Center. near 14th and Stout Street. or along Welton Street. between 20th Street and 30th Ave.  

In 2016, RTD reported 16 incidents involving vehicles and light rail trains. 10 of the incidents occurred along Welton Street. Four of the incidents occurred near 14th and Stout Street. There were zero incidents reported at Speer and Stout.

In 2015, RTD reported 26 incidents involving vehicles and light rail trains. 11 of the incidents occurred along Welton Street. Seven of the incidents occurred near the Convention Center including one at the intersection you had your near miss at Speer and Stout. Six of the incidents occurred near the Auraria campus.

In 2014, RTD reported 41 incidents involving vehicles and light rail trains. 16 of the incidents occurred along Welton Street. 13 occurred near the Auraria campus. 11 occurred near the convention center including three at Speer and Stout.

RTD credits changes and additions to the signal warnings and to the crossings near the Auraria campus in helping to reduce the number of incidents from 13 in 2014 to zero in 2016.

The other corridor where accidents typically occur on the current RTD system is along Welton Street. Since 2014, there have been 37 incidents between vehicles and light rail trains. Staff from the PUC, as well as the RTD Safety Staff, said they will continue to monitor the Welton corridor with the intent of identifying accident trends, causal factor trends and possible mitigation measures for the crossings along Welton Street.

I included only train-vehicle collisions and not train-pedestrian/bicyclists accidents.

Dr. Pam Fischhaber, chief of the PUC’s Rail/Transit Safety section, said it is up to drivers to assume a train is coming when crossing the tracks.

"People approaching an at-grade rail crossing in a vehicle, or on foot, should always expect a train at a railroad crossing at any time, on any track, from any direction,” Fischhaber said.

The PUC says it is both unsafe and illegal in Colorado to stop or allow yourself to become trapped on any railroad track whether in a vehicle or on foot.  

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