Catenary Replacement Plan Leads to 150 Miles of Success

Posted on May 20, 2015 by Heather Redfern - Also by this author

SETPA's wire train and crew at work. Photos courtesy: SEPTA
SETPA's wire train and crew at work. Photos courtesy: SEPTA
Maintaining just basic levels of service with an aging, and often failing, infrastructure is a challenge many legacy transportation agencies across the country struggle with on a daily basis. And, funding shortages often leave transit organizations battling to provide reliable service while identifying and making only the most needed and cost-effective repairs.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) Regional (commuter) Rail system was inherited from the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads and the infrastructure in many sections of the system has been serving the Philadelphia area for more than 100 years. Fifteen years ago, overhead catenary system (OCS) failures were a common occurrence on SEPTA Regional Rail, a result of fatigue cracks and wear. The all too common OCS failures were frustrating for SEPTA customers who occasionally found it difficult to depend on train service for their travels and for SEPTA, whose crews were constantly working to repair and maintain the system.

“We performed an analysis of the failures and determined that the entire OCS needed to be replaced,” said SEPTA Deputy GM Jeff Knueppel. “Our crews were excellent at responding to and patching the failures, but we could not reduce their rate of incidence. Not only did we need to obtain the funding for materials and train workers for the replacement, we also needed to devise a plan that would allow us to replace the catenary while keeping the Regional Rail lines in service for our passengers.”

Fast-forward 15 years and the SEPTA Power Department is celebrating the renewal of 150 miles of overhead catenary, completing most work at night or during mid-day service outages. Five OCS lines have been completely replaced, three have been partially replaced and two will be completed over the next two years.  

SEPTA’s failure analysis determined the project’s priorities and the work was/is being completed by the authority’s in-house forces. “Our Power Department examined the skill level of our crews and the ability of the equipment we already had to determine what we were going to need to complete the work,” said Knueppel.

Maintenance crews had electrical training and took Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee (NORAC) and Roadway Worker classes. A training program for lineman was also implemented.

“We streamlined the way our projects were completed,” said Knueppel. “Instead of preparing components in the field, our fabrication crew and overhead maintainers assemble and bundle the hangars at our fabrication shop. We also designed and developed new platform tower cars with infrared heaters that allow crews to continue working in cold temperatures.”

A modified open gondola car stores old wire without crews having to cut it into smaller sections. Together, the open gondola and tower cars allow crews to safely and effectively remove, replace and store OCS wire and hardware. The benefits of replacing the OCS can be seen in SEPTA’s Regional Rail ridership increase.

“Over the past 15 years, our catenary-component related failures are down drastically,” said Knueppel. “This work was among several key initiatives that allowed railroad ridership to grow 50 percent in this same time period. The investment in our infrastructure was done out of necessity, but has proven to be invaluable.”  

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