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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

October 2011

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Sounding Off: Transit agencies address 'hot issues' in 2011 Passenger Rail At-a-Glance surveys


To compile information for our annual Passenger Rail At-a-Glance guide, Progressive Railroading emails dozens of transit-rail agencies seeking such information as rolling stock stats, ridership figures, operating and capital costs. We also ask for details on current and upcoming capital projects. Additionally, we pose this open-ended question: "What are the 'hot issues' your agency is dealing with right now?"

The question elicited a wide range of responses. Answers ranged from local funding problems to budget woes to fleet replacements to winter preparedness and natural disaster recovery. No matter what the specific issue (or issues) noted, one thing is certain: Transit officials have plenty weighing on their minds these days, and the challenges noted in this year's survey are just a small sampling of those issues that are carrying the most heft.

Agencies' responses weren't included in the published guide — the agency and project info consumed the majority of the 20-page section — so we're including them in this online-only piece. Following are verbatim responses (by agency) to the "hot issues" question.

Altamont Commuter Express
"The economy and unemployment continues to play games with our ridership."

"Federal funding, developing and planning for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, launching passenger service programs like e-ticketing and more Wi-Fi on more trains."

Bay Area Rapid Transit
"Our most important focus is on keeping the existing system in a state of good repair while continuing to secure funding, collect public input and choose a contractor for our "Fleet of the Future" project to replace all of our train cars."

"Key challenges over the next two to five years for Caltrain include the following: securing a sustainable stream of funding to support rail operations; securing capital funding and financing for projects to maintain the railroad in a state of good repair and to provide needed capacity to meet growing demand and increased ridership. In addition, Caltrain is coordinating planning efforts with the California High-Speed Rail Authority to determine how best to operate high-speed train service through the Caltrain corridor."

Charlotte Area Transit System
"Funding for future rail projects, including rolling stock overhaul programs."

Chicago Transit Authority
"Despite significant fixed costs and steep declines in anticipated public funding, the CTA's objective continues to be to meet the challenges of the struggling economy without adversely impacting the current level and quality of service provided to customers."

GO Transit
"In winter, two of the main challenges we face is keeping rock salt out of our rail car doors (which can cause them to malfunction) and keeping salt of the pants cuffs of our customers. Rock salt is used to reduce the likelihood of slippage and enhance the mobility of our customers during the winter months. However, we've come up with two solutions to these challenges. Beneath many of our station platforms, we've installed a snow-melting system. This system removes the need to salt the platforms and reduces likelihood that commuters will have their pants cuffs stained by salt. Also, we've installed a sweeper system on the bottom of our rail car doors to sweep out rock salt (and other debris in spring, summer and fall). This prevents small debris from becoming lodged in our rail-car doors, causing them to malfunction."

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Rail Wayside Systems:

"The Metro rail system is now reaching an age where we are entering a continuous and continuing program of system rehabilitation and replacement across disciplines and rail lines. This is a challenge in terms of funding; manpower to design, manage, supervise and perform; and scheduling around ongoing revenue service operations."

Rail Fleet Services:

"Metro's oldest light-rail vehicles (54 Nippon Sharyo cars) are now 21 years old, and are in need of some upgrades to deal with technology obsolesce. Metro's Base Buy Subway vehicles (30 Breda cars) are now 18.5 years old, and are also in need of some upgrades. Standardizing equipment on both wayside and vehicles, such as Train-to-Wayside Communications equipment, will allow vehicles operating in old lines to be used on the newer lines."

Maryland Transit Administration
"The need for and cost of rolling stock overhauls and replacements, as well as improvements to track infrastructure and facilities. Copper cable theft along light-rail right of ways. Budgetary constraints, or meeting budget operating goals on an ongoing basis."

Metro Transit (Minneapolis/St. Paul)
"In reaching a broader budget agreement, a special session of the Minnesota legislature reduced transit funding in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region by $51.8 million for the two-year budget cycle that began July 1. The legislature allocated $78 million for the 2012-13 biennium and authorized one-time fixes to maintain transit services.

"We're going to need a bandage instead of a tourniquet." That's how Metropolitan Council Chair Sue Haigh described the outcome for regional transit of the special legislative session that ended July 20. "It really is good news compared to what we had under the bill the legislature passed and the governor vetoed in May."

"That bill would have slashed transit funding by $109 million.

"To help fill the shortfall, these steps are being taken:

  • Transferring approximately $15.3 million from the Counties Transit Improvement Board to the council for transit operations. CTIB already helps fund some operating subsidies along transitways, including Hiawatha and Northstar.
  • Withholding about $7.2 million in MVST proceeds that go to suburban transit providers. This will impact some providers more than others. However, the council has the tools and ability to ensure that all providers will be able to preserve existing and productive service, and no one provider will be disproportionately impacted.
  • The Metropolitan Council will assume the remaining $29.2 million reduction, with administrative reductions through attrition, temporarily using capital funds for operations and property taxes levied from the Right of Way Acquisition Loan Fund, as well as transit reserves.

"An immediate fare increase and drastic service reductions are not envisioned."

"Implementing positive train control. Challenges associated with obtaining spectrum and the creation and testing of new interoperable technology and equipment."

MTA Metro-North Railroad
"Due to flooding damage during Tropical Storm Irene at the end of August, a massive, multi-million-dollar repair effort will be needed to restore train service on a 14-mile section of the Port Jervis Line from Suffern to Harriman stations. In all, more than two miles of track was washed out at 50 locations totaling 11,500 feet. Engineers from AECOM with assistance from SYSTRA and McLaren estimated that it will take more than 100,000 tons of stone to make initial repairs, stabilize the track bed and shore up the river bank for the long term. The work will be expedited to bring back rail service as soon as is safe to do so.

"The other major issue facing Metro-North is nearly $1 billion in unfunded capital needs. The final three years of the MTA's 2010-2014 Capital Program are unfunded. Fully funding is required or projects such as the rehabilitation of mainline turnouts ($20 million), cyclical track work ($13 million), positive train control ($90 million), and Harlem and Hudson line power improvements ($33 million) will be at risk."

MTA New York City Transit
"Continue to do more with less as a result of financial constraints, while maintaining key operating requirements. Need to identify new efficiency savings programs. Need to maximize value of investments to maintain aging infrastructure without compromising service and safety."

Regional Transportation District (Denver)
"As with most public agencies, RTD is facing a combination of unforeseen funding constraints from the condition of the economy. With the increase in the price of commodities and the decrease in revenue from sales tax, RTD has a budget shortfall that affects the FasTracks program. RTD remains committed to their plan in its entirety, and is currently exploring options to build out the remaining unfunded FasTracks corridors."

Sacramento Regional Transit District
"The federal New Starts process is drawn out. With the process currently in place, advancing a project into final design through the Full Funding Grant Agreement process leaves an agency at the mercy of the FTA."

Sound Transit
"Addressing a $3.9 billion projected revenue shortfall for the 2011 budget year (2009-2023) of Sound Transit 2, the regional mass transit ballot measure passed by voters in November 2008."

South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority
"The major challenge for the entire system is finding funding for expansion as the Metro Vancouver region expands. Demands have been heavy in recent years, but TransLink is currently in a financial holding pattern."

South Florida Regional Transportation Authority/Tri-Rail
"Change in the philosophy of funding commuter rail with the change in government at the state level."

Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon
"Fare increase for LIFT paratransit riders, fare enforcement across the system, including adding fare enforcers, continued budget pressures."

Trinity Railway Express
"PTC implementation, narrow banding and bridge capacity ratings to comply with FRA bridge management program."

Utah Transit Authority
"The ongoing challenge has been lower revenues from sales taxes due to the recession. This has required cuts in existing service and adjusted operating plans for the new lines that opened on Aug. 7, 2011. Also, the opening two new light-rail lines and changing the entire configuration of our light-rail system has been challenging and we have faced delays and congestion issues as we work to adapt to the new schedules. We are also commissioning new LRVs, which have experienced some issues as the new vehicles have been brought into service."

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.