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'Not Safe, We're All Worked To Death': RTD Train Operators Open Up About Driver Shortage

DENVER (CBS4) – There have been hundreds of trip cancellations on various Regional Transportation District light rail lines since late September, mostly due to a mass shortage in train operators. Several operators who are employed with RTD spoke exclusively with CBS4 about what they believe to be the reason behind that shortage.

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(credit: CBS)

The drivers told CBS4 Investigator Kati Weis they are fed up with working six days a week, often 10 to 13 hours in a day. They're worried they're putting the public and themselves at risk when they're behind the wheel for such extended periods of time, and they want the public to know what it's really like to drive for RTD.

George Lelesz is one of those operators. He's worked for RTD since 2016.

Recently, Lelesz said he was driving tired after 13 hours on shift, and accidentally took a wrong turn, dropping off a train full of people at the wrong station.

"I had arrived that morning at 2:30 in the morning, 2:30, and this occurs in the afternoon at 3:30," Lelesz explained.

He said that was the first time he's made a mistake like that.

He's not the only one dealing with long hours. Some drivers told CBS4 it's tough for them to even get a bathroom break.

RTD train
An RTD train operator makes a stop at the I-25 and Broadway Station in Denver. (credit: CBS)

"I usually go every end terminal and they get mad about it," explained one driver, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job. "But it's my health, it's more important to me."

That employee also said drivers rarely get vacation requests approved, if at all. CBS4 is told one driver was even denied a request for a family wedding.

"After a while you almost just want to call in sick so you can get off a couple of days in a row and go on vacation or do grocery shopping, you know the little things," said the driver.

It isn't just the long hours, drivers also said they don't feel appreciated for their hard work.

For example, Lelesz likes to use the train's intercom to spread positivity to passengers.

"I'll go into downtown and I'll say ladies and gentlemen, welcome to downtown Denver, we have a bluebird Colorado day today, and the weather is going to be 57, have a lovely day to all you worker bees," Lelesz explained.

(credit: CBS)

But recently, he says he was told to stop doing that.

"I haven't spoken on the train since, and it's upsetting to my heart," Lelesz said.

Lelesz has received hundreds of letters of commendation from passengers who said they appreciated his kind remarks on the train, but RTD said some passengers recently complained about it.

"I just want to be kind to people, what's so funny about peace, love and understanding," Lelesz said.

Lelesz and other operators said they wish RTD would show more support for what they do.

"We're just more disrespected than anything at RTD," said the anonymous driver who spoke to CBS4.

RTD said the current operator shortage is due to a booming economy creating a smaller pool of qualified applicants, but some drivers believe it's because RTD doesn't treat its employees well.

RTD Assistant General Manager of Communications Pauletta Tonilas said the public transit system is working to address employee concerns by evaluating ways to cut service.

"We value our employees as our most important asset. We know they're in a very difficult situation, we don't want to have them in this situation, and we're doing everything we can," Tonilas said. "We hope that folks will see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Tonilas said the addition of new rail lines has put a strain on train operators in the last couple of years. However, several drivers told CBS4 they have been mandated to work six days a week for the last two to four years. But why would RTD open new rail lines if its drivers were already stretched thin? Tonilas said it was to meet the plans of the 2004 FasTracks measure approved by voters.

"We have implemented about 70% of the FasTracks program," said Tonilas. "This is a substantial amount of extra service, but our workforce has not kept up with it."

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(credit: CBS)

But now, RTD is proposing a temporary service reduction to ease the demands on workers, and provide more reliable trips for riders. Tonilas also hopes the reduction would entice more drivers to apply at RTD.

"What a service reduction could do is provide more quality of life, and once people get in the door, they realize it's a great place to want to work, and they want to stay," said Tonilas.

Tonilas said she's not sure how much service would be reduced, or how temporary the reduction would be, but those are things RTD officials are currently evaluating.

In a meeting Tuesday night, RTD officials estimated cutting services could save the district up to $9 million in the next budget.

The measure will be presented before the RTD board in November, and if the board decides to move forward with it, then RTD will seek public comment on the idea.

RTD is also working to hold more job fairs, even traveling out of state to recruit more employees. Tonilas said the system recently worked to recruit employees at a festival in South Dakota.

In the meantime, workers could continue to work long weeks, and trips could continue to be dropped.

"If one or even two operators call in sick, it does create this cascading effect in how many trips we're going to drop in a day," explained Tonilas.

The Department of Transportation could fine RTD and drivers for working more than 10 hours after only eight hours off duty. But, CBS4 is told that hasn't happened recently. Tonilas said that's because RTD has worked hard to keep fatigued drivers off the tracks and in-line with regulations.

"Of late what it's meant is dropped trips, because we don't want to put our operators out there in an unsafe situation and our passengers as well," Tonilas said.

But some drivers feel safety hasn't been a priority.

As one driver put it, "it's really tiring, and it's not safe, we're all worked to death."

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