Maintenance and construction projects can present quite the conundrum for transportation organizations with rail operations: shut down a major portion or entire line in one shot to get the work done while offering substitute service for riders? Work overnights and weekends for long stretches of time? One solution to the maintenance/construction puzzle is the “blitz” — a balancing act between productivity and customer inconvenience.
For the second consecutive summer, SEPTA is utilizing the blitz method, which is favored by freight rail lines, to complete much-needed repairs and upgrades for its trolley tunnel — a five-mile, single-track passageway that carries approximately 40,000 commuters every day between downtown and West Philadelphia on five trolley routes. In 2013, the tunnel was closed for 10 days while SEPTA’s in-house crews completed numerous projects, such as replacing approximately 10,000 feet of worn overhead wire and 2,500 feet of support troughing, along with power cleaning, painting and making repairs to stations.
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In 2014, the tunnel will be closed for 17 days while the authority’s crews replace nearly 24,000 feet of worn overhead contact wire; weld together long rail strings and install more than 14,000 feet of new rail; replace two concrete-embedded track switches; replace worn track components and clean the track drains and stormwater system throughout the tunnel; test back-up and emergency lighting cables; and complete numerous station maintenance tasks and station repairs. SEPTA will also complete a major station upgrade at the 15th Street westbound station in just one month because much of the work will be done during the closure.
In all, some 250 employees will participate in the 390 hours that the tunnel is closed to ensure all projects are complete by the start of the service day on August 18.
“This ‘blitz’ concept is used in the transportation industry because it allows organizations to maximize productivity during improvements projects while minimizing the period of inconvenience to passengers and communities that we serve. This is especially true when there is a single track operation, like our trolley tunnel,” said SEPTA Deputy GM Jeff Knueppel. “Because the tunnel is in use all day, every day, with the exception of a few hours on Sunday evenings, and is a single track operation, it is difficult for our crews to get productive work windows. Without this blitz and 17-day closure, we’d have months of nighttime and weekend shutdowns to complete all of the various projects.”
A key factor for the to the blitz’s being able to happen is that SEPTA’s Market-Frankford subway-elevated line runs parallel to the trolleys through downtown Philadelphia, eliminating the need to use buses for service substitution.
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Portions of SEPTA’s trolley tunnel date back to the turn of the century — the 20th century. It’s been 30 years since the rails have been renewed and eight years since the wires were replaced. With 662 trolleys per day (200,000 per year) traveling through the tunnel, the infrastructure must be reliable. It is a single track operation — if one section of track goes down, trolleys cannot operate.
“We chose this time of year to do the work because our ridership is at its lowest,” said Knueppel. “When our riders return from vacation and head back to school en masse at the end of August and beginning of September, they will be using a trolley tunnel that is safer, more reliable and more attractive.”
SEPTA’s Trolley Tunnel Blitz also demonstrates the importance of government investment in transportation, as major construction elements for the project were funded by Pennsylvania’s Act 89, a landmark bill which was approved by the Commonwealth’s legislature and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett last fall to provide a dedicated, long-term funding solution for transportation infrastructure investments in Pennsylvania.
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