Canceled rail trips are disruptive – and taken seriously

Darla Sutton Miller is ready to commit to the E Line.

But she’s still waiting for the E Line to fully commit to her, and to other reliable commuters who have been left stranded in the fall and early winter of RTD’s severe staffing shortages and train cancellations.

Operator shortages and resulting bus and train trip cancellations are complicating the daily commutes of many. The situation has led RTD staff to recommend a 4 percent reduction in routes and frequencies until more operators come online. It will be the top challenge for Paul Ballard, a former Fort Worth transit CEO chosen as RTD’s temporary CEO. Assuming contract negotiations are successfully completed, Ballard will lead RTD while a longer national search begins for a permanent CEO to replace Dave Genova, who retired in January.

“I love the idea of commuting with RTD using the E Line,” Miller wrote, in a Facebook conversation with RTD’s communications department. “It became unreliable when the weather went bad around Oct. 1.”

“There were times it would stop at Lincoln and say, ‘Everybody off!’, which was a nightmare if I had a ride pickup scheduled at RidgeGate,” she said. “To be a reliable, dependable employee, I need confidence in my commute, and I haven’t had that with RTD. … (U)ntil this happens, we are crowding downtown parking, for safety’s sake.”

Regular RTD rider Garett Wolfe put his frustration more bluntly: “Why would you cancel trains during prime rush hour times and during the last two available times at night? Don't you understand you leave people in a tough spot when they're paying over a hundred dollars a month for your services? Why can't you hire enough people?”

RTD understands how disruptive sudden trip cancellations can be for commuters who need to get to work, or to classes, or health appointments, or grocery stores. What RTD planning staff wants commuters like Miller and Wolfe to know is that cancellations are not random or arbitrary, even though it might feel that way to them.

“If the public knew one thing, I’d want them to know we take this very seriously,” said Gary Schafer, RTD’s general superintendent of rail transportation. “The last thing we want is for somebody to get dinged at work because they weren’t there on time. We do care.”

So what is the rhyme and reason behind RTD’s announcements of canceled trips? (Train cancellations are now announced on Fridays before the following work week, an aid to commuters that RTD negotiated in a new memorandum of understanding with the operators’ union.)

  • Even when planning ahead for operator shortages in the following week, RTD is still subject to last-minute callouts by operators, who under the collective bargaining agreement are allowed to call in sick just a half-hour before their run begins. While RTD has a small “backup board” of fill-in operators, in late January it had only 152 rail operators on staff versus a budgeted need of 216 operators to run a full schedule.
  • When canceling trips, RTD has to “spread the pain.” Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and transit rules require that riders benefiting from federal subsidies must be treated equally, regardless of race, gender and nationality, and that service changes must be analyzed for how they affect lower-income neighborhoods and commuters. In other words, RTD can’t simply cancel all trains that run relatively empty if they run in underserved communities and are the only transit alternative.
  • More trains get canceled on Fridays because Fridays have more service scheduled, and the operator gap remains.
  • Under the union agreement, routes and train trips are put out to bid to operators, based on seniority, three times a year, and then are approved by staff and the Board. Senior operators tend to choose weekday and daytime routes, leaving Saturday runs particularly vulnerable to shortages and cancellations.
  • When other factors are equal under Title VI, RTD planners look at how to inconvenience the smallest numbers of riders based on past boarding counts. “When I have a choice of dropping two H Line runs, for example, I do my best to pick the one that affects the least amount of ridership,” said Sarah Boettcher, RTD’s rail operations manager who plots runs on spreadsheet after spreadsheet.
  • Operator safety are satisfaction is crucial across rail and bus planning. Most operators are required to work six-day weeks, and reducing these mandates is key to retaining more operators. “When I started as a bus operator during another challenging time for RTD, before the mandatory day off, I worked 71 days straight,” Schafer said. “I know how they feel. I’ve been there.”
  • Federal rules on major grants to construct new lines prevent RTD from cutting back runs on newly opened train lines. Commuters have noticed that train runs on the E, F and R Extension to Lone Tree in May 2019 are sparsely used. RTD has asked for federal waivers to cut back the frequency of runs there, saving operators to fill in for other shortages. These requests have been denied.

RTD’s light rail managers have been using some coping tools more aggressively to ease the shortage and cancellations for passengers. If a train is canceled at a peak hour, RTD tries to add a fourth passenger car to the next train to handle overflow. RTD is also keeping all cars on other runs instead of removing them during off-peak periods, though that raises costs in electricity and maintenance.

“It’s highly visible on the rail side when a train doesn’t show up at a station,” Schafer said. “You may have 50 to 100 people at each station impacted at one time. So we’ve had to revamp how we do this.”