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April 2012

Rail News: MOW

Rail infrastructure challenges, part 2: At rail transit agencies, maintenance-of-way managers are addressing track time, budget and staff resource issue


by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

Ask any transit official about the top challenge facing its agency and the answer is bound to relate to one of the following: budget constraints, workforce development, growing ridership and host-railroad partnerships.

Any of those challenges can (and do) trickle down to individual departments. So when Progressive Railroading contacted transit maintenance-of-way (MOW) officials to learn their greatest infrastructure challenges this year, it came as no surprise to hear they were in line with those often mentioned in a bigger-picture context.

For example, MTA New York City Transit's (NYCT) growing ridership and 24/7 operations are making it difficult for MOW department managers to find the track time to make repairs. To address track time, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) anticipates operational shut-downs during this year's track re-insulation project.

At the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), budget cuts and staffing issues are slowing the agency's charge to address state-of-good repair needs. And although the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) is planning a straightforward track extension, the project could be complicated by factors out of the agency's control, such as relying on host-railroad crews to complete some of the work.

These four examples, which are further detailed in the vignettes that follow, are representative of the various challenges that MOW department managers are facing at transit agencies throughout the country.

NYCT: On the Fast Track

In the city that never sleeps, 24/7 subway service is a must. Millions of NYCT passengers use the service at all hours.

But as ridership continues to increase, particularly during nights and weekends, track access windows have shortened and MOW crews are having a hard time completing necessary work in an efficient manner. Track windows are particularly tight where lines converge in Manhattan; there, trains run every eight minutes during overnight hours.

"We're constantly asking [workers] to start, stop, clean up, remember where they left off and start up again," says Joe Leader, NYCT's chief of track and infrastructure. "We needed a different way of doing work."

That's why this year, with about $250 million worth of subway rehabilitation work on tap, NYCT launched FASTRACK, a program under which the agency shuts down service on a particular segment of the subway system during late-night and early-morning hours to provide crews a chunk of uninterrupted work time.

NYCT launched the first FASTRACK project on the Lexington Avenue Line in January. For four nights, all four tracks were shut down along a seven-mile stretch between Grand Central-42nd Street and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

Track crews, signal and communication department workers, and station crews worked for seven straight hours each night. During the four-day period, crews completed more than 300 projects, such as removing debris from tracks, replacing ties and rail, installing track plates, cleaning stations and drains, inspecting signals, painting station areas and replacing lights. Much of the work had been delayed for several years because workers needed an extended period of time to complete the projects.

Organizing the program is key: Planning for the Lexington Avenue FASTRACK project began three months prior to the project's launch. One MOW department manager, who was charged solely with organizing the program, analyzed all work requests, entered them into a database and coordinated schedules with various parties. The project included about 65 work locations, with both NYCT crews and outside contractors performing the work, says Leader.

"We literally plotted where people were working each night to make sure the work didn't interfere with each other," he says. "The undertaking was tremendous."

But the disruption to passengers was minimal, relatively speaking. Of the 5.5 million passengers NYCT serves each day, only about 250,000 ride trains during overnight hours. Prior to launching the FASTRACK campaign, NYCT communications officials got the word out about the line shutdown through marketing efforts. The communications department also provided information on alternative routes, and MOW department officials made sure to hold off on conducting general work orders on adjacent lines for a few nights.

NYCT has followed up the Lexington Avenue project with other FASTRACK programs, shutting down portions of the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Avenue lines in February and March to complete work in four nights that otherwise would have taken weeks or perhaps months to finish.

By year's end, MOW department managers will report to NYCT's board about the program's cost-benefit versus disruption to passengers. Leader, for one, is confident the program will continue; he's already begun planning FASTRACK projects for 2013.

The program could save NYCT $10 million by year's end, Leader estimates.

"We've only completed work on four of the many lines we have, so we'll probably have to see multiple FASTRACKs and a few years go by before we see the benefits pay off," he says.

MARTA: Money and Manpower Needed

When it comes to infrastructure challenges, MARTA has plenty. Built in the 1970s, the heavy-rail system is starting to show its age, and key systems and facilities need to be replaced or upgraded. But maintenance department officials aren't worried about executing the projects — the state-of-good-repair needs are well documented and planned. The primary challenge: finding the funding and manpower to carry them out.

Like many other transit agencies, MARTA was hit hard by the economic downturn, as sales tax revenue the agency relies on from Fulton and DeKalb counties and the city of Atlanta plummeted, and ridership declined. As a result, the maintenance department is struggling to find funds to purchase materials and contract services, says Director of Maintenance of Way Garry Free.

MARTA has budgeted $20 million for MOW this year, including projects related to maintaining or repairing traction power systems, signal systems, track, structures and stations. Larger projects are funded through the agency's capital improvement program.

In 2012, MARTA has budgeted $187 million for capital improvements, and $100 million of that is earmarked for rail improvements, says Assistant General Manager of Rail Operations Rich Krisak.

But that figure pales in comparison to what the agency invested in capital improvements prior to the recession, and MARTA has a multi-billion-dollar state-of-good-repair backlog.

"When we look at the capital program now, we've sorted it into projects related to safety or regulatory issues," says Krisak. "There are no 'nice-to-haves' anymore."

Krisak and Free are hoping the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) focus on state-of-good repair programs will change that. Historically, FTA has doled out a large portion of transit program funds for expansion projects.

In recent years, FTA officials have been pressing agencies to focus more on repair needs, and the administration now requires transit agencies to assess the condition of their assets and submit a report to the FTA. To help fund state-of-good-repair projects, FTA has proposed earmarking dedicated funds in the next surface transportation bill.

"But, we can't get a new bill passed through Congress, and that's been a real issue for us," says Krisak.

Even if additional capital dollars were available tomorrow, MARTA has another challenge that could stand in the way of putting it to use: a lack of staffing resources.

"This business just has not really attracted younger folks, so getting the resources for engineering, construction management and project controls is really difficult," says Krisak. "When you put the additional restrictions of working in the public sector, it's difficult to get the capacity to move a lot of projects."

In addition, MARTA apprenticeship programs currently are not being funded, so the agency doesn't have a steady stream of workers it can fall back on when jobs open up. Instead, new MOW employees, particularly those working as electronic or automatic train-control technicians, have to complete a six-month training program.

"Then, I have to backfill their position with someone at an overtime rate," says Free.

Despite its challenges, MARTA is using available manpower and money to complete some large-scale improvements. The agency is in the midst of upgrading its train-control system, renewing and replacing the fire-protection systems at all facilities, and replacing rail and ties under a track renovation program.

LACMTA: Rail Re-insulation on the Docket

For the past several years, LACMTA has been rehabilitating switch machines, replacing ties and upgrading grade crossings on its oldest and heavily traveled light-rail corridor, the Blue Line. The agency's other rail lines are newer and don't need much maintaining yet. So fiscal-year 2012 MOW work is pretty minimal — at least on the track side, says Michael Harris-Gifford, executive officer of wayside systems.

But during the next couple of months, the agency plans to launch some challenging maintenance work: a $13 million rail re-insulation project along a one-mile segment of the Blue Line in Long Beach, Calif. LACMTA crews will lift the rail, install new insulation around it and replace individual rail segments if they are corroded.

The project is expected to take nine months to a year to complete.

During that time, LACMTA officials need to ensure they limit disruption to both Blue Line operations and local traffic, since the rail is embedded in city streets.

"It's the traditional conflict between efficiency of construction work and the need to move people," says Harris-Gifford. "We can't just shut the line down for several weeks and do the work all at once."

Track department managers are working with operations officials to determine how, when and where the project can begin. A portion of the one-mile segment is double-tracked, so LACMTA will be able to work around those areas by shutting down one track at a time. However, another single-track portion of the corridor will need to be shut down. LACMTA will schedule the shut-downs at times that are least inconvenient to riders, says Harris-Gifford.

ACE: UP's Priorities a Factor

In the next month or two, ACE plans to begin extending track from a terminal in Stockton, Calif., about 1.5 miles to a new maintenance facility the agency is building for its commuter-rail equipment.

The project includes building a bridge over a four-lane road and extending a platform over the bridge, relocating crossovers north and south of the station, upgrading three grade crossings and constructing a second bridge over a four-lane arterial.

Because the work is fairly straightforward, ACE Director of Operations Brian Schmidt doesn't foresee any major obstacles, assuming everything goes according to plan.

ACE operates its 86-mile San Jose-to-Stockton service along Union Pacific Railroad tracks. So, the Class I plays a role in all ACE improvement projects. For the track extension, UP crews will be conducting track tie-ins and signal work, says Schmidt. But other priorities might come first for UP if the economy suddenly booms.

"They may have to pull folks out from here and send them to [repair infrastructure] in the Midwest, where their main container lines are," says Schmidt. "Because we don't own the track, we're at the will of what's happening with the railroad."

Not that it's typically a problem. ACE officials have completed numerous projects along the corridor in partnership with UP. The agency focuses on projects that will improve commuter service but also provide a benefit for freight operations. For example, ACE last year completed a $1.5 million project to upgrade a 70-year-old signal system over 53 miles of the corridor.

ACE's upcoming track extension project will help improve velocity for UP trains. Currently, an Amtrak train has to stop on ACE's mainline at the Stockton station because it can't access the station track, so passengers deboard at a grade crossing, holding up the Class I's trains. Once ACE extends the stub track past the station, Amtrak trains no longer will block the mainline.

The $26 million project is expected to take 24 months to complete, barring any other unforeseen challenges. One possible setback: The construction industry has been "very favorable" of late, but contracting conditions could change quickly, says Schmidt. ACE plans to enter into separate contracts for various project components and if, for example, steel prices skyrocket again, the project budget could balloon.


A Key MOW Resource

To obtain more information on freight and passenger railroads' MOW programs this year — as in a lot more information — purchase the Maintenance of Way Spending Report 2012.

The 43-page report includes program breakdowns from 83 railroads, including the seven largest Class Is; 48 regionals, short lines and short-line holding companies; and 28 passenger railroads and transit agencies.

Railroads cited in the report include Amtrak, the Alaska Railroad Corp., Bay Area Rapid Transit, BNSF Railway Co., CN, Chicago Transit Authority, CSX Transportation, Florida East Coast Railway, GO Transit, Metra, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, MTA New York City Transit, MTA Long Island Rail Road, MTA Metro-North Railroad, Montana Rail Link, Norfolk Southern Railway, OmniTRAX Inc., RailAmerica Inc., Sound Transit, TransLink and Union Pacific Railroad.

The report provides specific details and relevant facts on rail, tie and ballast programs; siding, switch, interlocking and bridge projects; planned facilities, including stations, repair shops and administration buildings; and a host of MOW equipment railroads plan to lease or purchase.

The total dollar amount devoted to MOW by the 83 participants hovers around $10 billion.

An important resource for all MOW marketplace constituents, Maintenance of Way Spending Report 2012 is valued at $499, but available for $249. To order the report, log onto


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