Like most notable infrastructure projects, the N Line is multigenerational

When RTD’s newest commuter rail line, the N Line, opened for passenger service on Sept. 21, two men named Phil Washington were there to mark the occasion. Was this a coincidence? A mistake?

Neither: Phil Washington is a former RTD general manager and CEO, and laid the foundation for the line. Phil Washington Jr., his son, is a lead field supervisor for commuter rail and operates trains along the 13-mile corridor from Denver to Thornton. Each reflects upon different details of his involvement in the project. Both are pleased to see it serving the public after years of planning and construction.

“I knew the opportunity that was going to be here, I knew that this would be a big stand-up project and a big effort, so I made the move over here,” said Washington Jr., who joined RTD as a light rail operator two years ago. “It was the best decision I made to come over here. The commuter rail buildout has been incredible. The (University of Colorado) A Line, the B Line, the G Line and now the N Line – we’re really building a robust commuter rail system in the Denver metro area, and to be part of that is huge.”

Washington Jr. grew up navigating the RTD system, having ridden the agency’s buses and trains since childhood. As a teenager, he took Route 139 to Nine Mile Station, hopped on the H Line to Colorado Station, then transferred to another bus to reach his first summer job. He recalls many days as a youngster being surrounded by RTD employees at events, such as skill competitions for bus and rail operators and the opening of Union Station.

He was there when the ribbon was cut on the Eagle P3 project, the multibillion-dollar public-private partnership that was the first of its kind in the United States and encompasses RTD’s first three commuter rail lines. Washington Jr. was keenly aware that the transit buildout taking place around him was being led by his father, who implemented the FasTracks program approved by voters in 2004.

“My life has been entrenched in transit ever since my dad started working here,” Washington Jr. noted. Did he ever expect to be working in transit? “Not really,” he said, chuckling. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot, or an aircraft pilot. I guess this is the closest thing to doing it on (the) ground.”

When Washington Jr. describes what it’s like to operate a commuter rail train, he speaks about the awesome responsibility inherent in handling a vehicle carrying people to their destinations. “It’s a 140,000-pound missile on a guided trackway, so it’s a very huge and heavy piece of equipment,” he said. “You’re overseen by the federal government. It’s quite an experience. For me, every time I go 79 miles per hour, it’s a moment.”

From the cab, Washington Jr. said, he is wholly focused on safety and a host of details he can observe.

“One of the primary directives of a locomotive engineer or train operator is to ensure the safety of everyone riding and, to the best of their ability, the general public,” he said. “When I am operating the equipment, I pay special attention to the infrastructure that makes up the right of way. It’s not something that an average person would ever pay special attention to; however, it’s what makes this all possible. The cab of a train is one of the best viewpoints to observe the infrastructure and look out for anything that may be awry.”

Washington Jr. says the best part of his work is being able to coach and mentor locomotive engineers and certified engineers. “Seeing a person after they successfully complete a certification trip, and after so much hard work they finally achieve that certification, that’s what satisfies me and really makes everything worth it,” he said.

Washington Jr.’s father, who led RTD from 2009 to 2015, is not at all surprised that his son is working on the N Line. He always had a knack for mechanical things and wanted to understand how things move, Washington said. He also pays attention to detail and knows that small things make a big difference. “He thinks about what needs to work, obstacles, forecasting what will happen before it happens. I think that’s a skill that he has, and a gift that operators and maintainers of infrastructure, folks on the ground, must have.”  

Washington said that he often discusses the importance of safety with his son and employees at LA Metro, where he is CEO. “We cannot forget that this is an awesome responsibility, and the accountability that comes with having a train full of people. That goes to all modes of infrastructure. You must be totally focused on safety and what you’re doing.”

Washington said that he has always thought about infrastructure projects like the N Line as being multigenerational, meaning that seeing a new project to the end is often a rarity. Planning for such a project takes place 30 years out, even though doing so can be difficult because it’s hard to know what will happen during that period. Five to 10 years into a long-range plan, he said, near-term decisions have to be made, and you can’t be afraid of making them. Washington made the call to purchase rail cars for the N Line – and expand the commuter rail maintenance facility to accommodate those vehicles – before the line was built. The approach saved RTD millions of dollars, he said.

Among the things he reflected on at the N Line opening, Washington said, were the multitude of decisions made years before that allowed the project to be completed. He said he also thought about the individuals who made the work possible.

“We need all levels of leadership and management to get these projects done,” Washington said. “It’s never one person – it’s never the CEO only. It’s those folks who are on the ground, and I think North Metro had a good team.”

Washington left Colorado for California before the commuter rail lines opened that are part of the Eagle P3 project. He referenced former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose administration began the U.S. interstate highway system – a megaproject that took decades to complete. Eisenhower knew he likely would not see the final day of work on it.

“We have to understand that starting the job should be satisfaction enough. We don’t necessarily have to see things finished,” Washington said. Of his son, he added, “I’m happy that he is on that job now, and working FasTracks now, and on the N Line. He’s got a long career, I think, in infrastructure.”

Phil Washington and Phil Washington
Phil Washington Jr., lead field supervisor for commuter rail, stands with his father, former general manager and CEO Phil Washington, on the opening day of RTD’s newest commuter rail line, the N Line.