Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mahler's Monday's: I'm Leaving on that Evening Light Rail to Denver

Ever since I can remember, I've always loved trains.

I can't really explain the appeal but I'm pretty sure I inherited the passion from my dad, a train fanatic. As a kid I always wanted to have a job where I had to ride a train into the city. You know, like Don Draper, only without the chain smoking and infidelities. Unfortunately for me, interstate developments have made my current job too convenient to access by car even if Denver had a train running from the city to the suburbs.

But recently I discovered the full potential of the city's transportation system's hidden gem: the light rail.

Last week, I had to get from my office in the Tech Center to downtown to cover the 32nd Annual Starz Denver Film Festival. I got off work at 5:00 p.m. and had to be at the festival’s opening event by six. Previous efforts to travel downtown during that time of rush hour concerned me and I was expressing my apprehensions when a couple of co-workers suggested catching the light rail at the station right next to our office building.

I looked online and sure enough, there was a train leaving right after five that would put me downtown right before six. I wouldn't have to hassle with traffic or parking (and the cost of the train ticket was comparable, if not cheaper, than most parking options in the city).

I guess to be fair, the light rail isn't technically a train. But it is a group of connected cars that run on a track - like a train, so that's enough for me. And I loved the whole experience. I was a fedora and a trench coat away from meeting Don and Roger for drinks at The Oak Bar. I grew up with the subway systems of Washington, D.C. and New York City, but I like the Denver light rail better. I like being above ground where you can see the city as you approach.

Like a train.

The only oddity about the light rail to me is the ticket situation. On most transportation systems I've been on, you typically buy a ticket and either hand it to someone or stick it into a machine or gate to validate and gain access to get through.

That's not the case on the light rail.

You buy your ticket at the station and then... just get on the train. No one or no thing is there to stop you or check your ticket; which I'm taking to mean that you don't necessarily need a ticket to ride. Occasionally there will be uniformed train cops on the cars that will walk by and ask to see your ticket, just like an old train conductor, but they're not always present. If they are and you don't have a light rail ticket, they will write you an actual ticket on the spot (not sure how much those run, but I can't imagine it's cheap).

This whole set-up is amazing to me. I have to give the Denver transportation department a ton of credit on this one. They've instituted an honor system that's basically the travel game edition of Russian Roulette. Do you pay the light rail ticket price upfront or risk getting caught?

With how ridged and regulated the world has become these days, I'm stoked that something like this still exists.

Now don't think for a minute that I would ever try to take that chance. I'm so much of a goody-goody that I get nervous around those train cops even when I have a ticket. I'm always afraid that there will be something wrong with the ticket I bought and I'll get a real ticket.

Even when I do the something right, I get stressed that I'm doing something wrong.

Welcome to my brain.

There were no train cops on my ride downtown that night (whew!) and there was a stop right on top of the venue I was going to for the festival. It couldn't have worked out any better.

Until I tried going home later that evening.

The light rail has five different lines that run from the city to various parts of the Denver suburbs (Lines C through H, but skipping G for some reason). I had rode the F Line from the Tech Center to downtown but as I was checking the schedule at the station, I could not find an F Line car running back to my office past 9:09 p.m.

It was now after 10 o'clock.

If I’m the type of person that gets anxious about getting into trouble even when I’m playing by the rules, take a guess at how quickly I hit the panic button when something’s actually going wrong.

(Since most of you Denver natives know how this turns out, feel free to start openly mocking me now.)

Thankfully, I was smart enough to just get on a train on another line and ride it to farthest station I could until it veered away from where I was headed. My heart started to race as we were blowing by other stops along the way. What was I going to do? Was I going to have to get a cab? Was my Wife going to have to come get me?

I felt like Keanu Reeves in “Speed”, only this time it was a runaway train.

Despite my freak out, I had the presence of mind to call my Wife and get her online to figure out where I was going to need a taxi, or where she was going to have to come get me, or where I would be stuck for the rest of my natural life (yes, my thoughts get that drastic). She, being more level-headed and calm than me, looked up all the times for all of the lines and noticed that the correct line picked back up at the station I was already headed towards.

Well. That was easy enough.

The next night went much smoother as I was an old pro by then. Now I want to ride the light rail as much as possible. I even looked up how much it would cost to get a monthly pass then I mapped out my plan to try and justify to my Wife why I need to leave the house earlier every morning, drive out of my way, and pay more.

I’m still working on that one.

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