A Light Railer's Lament

I'm in a sour mood today even though I shouldn't be. Christmas, and all its attendant annoyances, is gone for another six months. I just spent some QT visiting with the family. It's warming up. I still have a job and one or two bucks left in the bank account.

The source of my sourness lies with Phoenix's shiny new miniature train set known as Valley Metro. Like the other 90,000 locals who hopped aboard on the light-rail line's opening day, I was really excited about the sun god's gift to mass transit here in the desert. I'm still excited about the prospects of what light rail could and should mean to the region, but after three days of this thing ding-dinging away, I'm simply not impressed.

So far, it's stranded me downtown twice, once costing me a sizable sum in taxi fare, the other time resulting in a brisk eight-block walk when the trains were too full to carry my co-workers and I back to work after lunch.

My story begins on Saturday night, the day of the grand opening of the light-rail line. With my parents in town, visiting from the depressed, cold, gray state of Michigan, we were geeked about being among the first riders of Valley Metro. So, around 7:30 p.m., the missus, my folks and I bundled up, got in the car, and drove to the park-n-ride lot at Central and Camelback, where we were going to hop the train and zip downtown for some dinner at Portland's, right across the street from the Roosevelt/Central station.

We climbed aboard with several happy riders (fortunately, we were not crammed in, like those riders earlier in the day) and had a smooth, comfortable, and quick ride to our stop. I felt  Portland's was going to be the perfect dining option for our first light-rail ride: It has an urbane, big-city neighborhood ambiance, not unlike the countless bistros you'll find in Chicago, from where I moved here about three years ago. As it turned out the reservation I made (thinking there would be lots of people pulling the same routine as me and my family) was completely unnecessary. Portland's was dead -- at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. Sheesh. 

The fun began when we left Portland's at 10 and walked across the street to the deserted station. The lights were on and the digital signs displayed the time, but nothing was happening; no train was coming. After 10 minutes, I half-jokingly said, "We may be hailing a cab soon." I remembered someone from the office saying it was going to shutting down at 10 every night. But could the light rail be done for the day this early on Opening Day? The extensive literature posted at each station said something about the last train leaving either terminus at 11 p.m. on weekends. Phew, I felt better knowing that. But we continued to wait, and now we're getting cold.

I decided to call the customer service number posted at the station to get some answers. As you might expect, I had to perform a convoluted series of number-pushing on my mobile phone to make any kind of headway. The customer service is open only on weekdays, during business hours. Really?!? On the opening day, you can't make an exception? Oh, wait, here's an option to connect to an after-hours customer service representative. Three tries, and I never was connected. It just gave me a busy signal twice and dead air once.

My ever-resourceful mom walked over and hit the blue illuminated emergency button to see what would happen. A human being answered. She explained the situation, mentioning that we'd been at the Roosevelt/Central station for 25 minutes and still hadn't seen a train, despite the notification that the line would be running for at least another half-hour. The human being tells my mom that the line shut down at 8 and then hangs up.

I suddenly envisioned a small army of commuters wielding baseball bats smashing to bits Valley Metro's electronic fare machines. I couldn't effing believe we were stranded downtown on a Saturday night at 10 p.m. on the system's first-ever night of operation.

Guess what? We hailed a cab, the four of us piling in to head back to the park-n-ride. The friendly driver chuckled at our plight. He told us we were the fifth group he'd picked up from trainless stations in the past hour. As we drove north on Central past the "Encanto" stop, the cabbie rolled down his window and shouted to another family of four, "There's no train!" It was kinda funny in an absurd way, but I felt bad for the chilled family, too. For all I know, they'd need a ride all the way to 19th Avenue and Montebello, the line's western terminus.

Our fare was $16. I really think the geniuses at Valley Metro should pay me back. C'mon, guys, get your shit together. Nowhere did it say your stupid train was going to stop running at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night -- no, on Opening Night! 

Dear Valley Metro, my e-mail address is [email protected] If you write to me, I will give you my PayPal account, so that you can pay me back. -- Jay Bennett

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Jay Bennett
Contact: Jay Bennett