Management & Operations

The Challenge of Bringing Light Rail to the Twin Cities

Posted on March 1, 2004

The Hiawatha Light Rail Project in the Twin Cities was scheduled to open in early April, but not without some teething pains as well as indeterminate delay due to a work stoppage. As the project’s construction neared completion, the Minnesota state legislature passed an initiative to competitively procure for the operations and maintenance of the system. To address the mandate, the Metropolitan Council, the unique regional body that governs the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, put the operations and maintenance of the line out to bid, with the in-house agency being set up to run it also submitting a bid against the interested private companies. It is believed to be the first time such “managed competition” has been tried for a rail transit network in North America. The line will open in two phases. Phase 1, running from Minneapolis’ Warehouse District downtown to Fort Snelling, will reintroduce urban passenger rail to the Twin Cities for the first time since the 1950s. Phase 2 is scheduled to open in December 2004, extending the line to the Mall of America and two terminals in the airport. Upon completion of both phases, the new line will run 12 miles with 17 stations. To discuss these and other issues related to the start-up of the nation’s newest urban rail line, Cliff Henke, former editor and associate publisher of METRO, talked with Joe Marie, assistant general manager of rail operations at Metro Transit, the operating agency that reports to the Metropolitan Council. Rail transit start-ups can be very challenging. What have been the most difficult challenges? First and foremost, ensuring safety. Introducing new, modern rail transit to a community unfamiliar with it is always a big challenge, as anyone who has done it will tell you. Secondly, the transition from design and construction to operations can be very complicated. Fundamentally, it is a matter of the designers designing parts of the system that won’t work very well from the operators’ and maintainers’ perspective. To avoid that, you need to have the operating and maintenance staffs give their input to the designers and constructors before it is too late and the system is already too far along. But that can be tricky because many of the people who need to give that input might not be hired or familiar enough with this particular LRT system yet. Managers also want to minimize staff costs by hiring people as late as possible. It’s a delicate balance. Can you give an example of one of the issues you faced here in Minneapolis? Sure. It can be small, subtle things like the location of grade crossing arms at street intersections. We had to relocate some of the arms because, while they might have made sense on paper, their actual operation and how the traffic flowed at certain intersections created a potential for vehicles to get trapped under the crossing arms as they came down. Sometimes you can’t figure these things out until the actual operating test phases, the initial “burn-in” period before the system opens for service. How much did organizational development issues present a challenge for a new system here? Where did your skilled workers come from for signals, track, LRV maintenance and the traction power system? When you build a new rail start-up you are beginning the organization from scratch. It’s extremely important to get a mix of people with real-world railroad experience. Finding and developing the talent pool for skilled, experienced track maintenance, traction systems maintenance and signaling system maintenance has been extremely challenging. These are unique talents and as a bus-only operator here, we did not have a lot of in-house experience. Fortunately, we were able to recruit some good people from the industry to come up here, and we were able to cross-train some bus maintenance technicians with electrical systems experience for the smaller electronic systems positions. Because of the high voltages in rail transit, we were forced to recruit traction-power system maintainers from the outside. Track maintenance staff is also a challenge because the skill sets are obviously different from bus operations. So, for the heavy track maintenance, such as for tamping, tie replacement and so forth, we have outsourced to a private firm. For lighter and routine work, we were fortunate to be able to recruit an experienced foreman fairly early on from the outside, who has been able to cross-train and recruit others. For the signaling system maintenance, we were able to draw upon an experienced talent pool of electronic technicians laid-off from Northwest Airlines, whose headquarters are in Minneapolis. In this, we were lucky to be the beneficiaries of that company’s downsizing at the time we needed people. This kind of thing is always an issue: Look at what you’ve got in-house, draw on resources available in the surrounding community and recruit from elsewhere what you cannot get locally. For the rest, you need to consider outsourcing. How about LRV operators? It’s very common to recruit rail operators from the bus side of the organization. In all, we will require 30 to 35 LRV operators, and all of them will come from the bus side. A group of 30 have already been hired. It takes about five or six weeks to train them. The best bus operators make very good LRV operators because they are very safety conscious, very rules oriented. Bus drivers with these characteristics will make excellent LRV operators. You touched on safety just now and earlier. Safety must be a major concern, particularly with the in-street running areas of the Hiawatha alignment. What have you done to ensure safety during the start-up and testing phases? It is the major concern during the system testing phase. It is not uncommon to have safety incidents during the test phase and early start-up phase of a new light rail system. We have anticipated this by doing a lot of community outreach even during the testing phase. We have mailed out thousands and thousands of pieces of literature and held a number of community meetings during this period. In addition, the media have been very helpful by picking up on the safety theme and running a lot of stories about it. We also leaned on the horn a lot during the testing phase. We did get into a little trouble with the community at first. I think we scared them a little. It’s always striking the right balance between being careful at the grade crossings and staying off the alignment, looking for the trains in the street-running portions and so on, and being confident in the safety of rail transit as a mode. In addition to all this outreach, we also conducted low-speed tests with staff at each intersection. It was a moving block of people — no pun intended — going from intersection to intersection ensuring that people ahead obeyed the warnings as the trains approach and handing out literature along the way. The police have also been very helpful during the burn-in period. They issued a lot of warnings for jaywalking and cars trying to beat the crossing arms. Then they started aggressively issuing tickets, and that also got a lot of media attention. The media have been very receptive to our safety concerns. Besides, it’s not exactly a bad thing to be accused of being too vigilant when it comes to safety; that’s a criticism we can be proud of. Tell us about the legislative mandate to competitively procure the operations of the Hiawatha Light Rail Transit System. How did your organization prepare for what we believe to be the first time in North America that a transit agency competed against the private sector for the right to operate a new start system? Yes, there are several examples of private operators being chosen to operate the system from the start of the project, but this is the first time I know of in the U.S. where an agency that was already gearing up to operate it was forced to compete with private-sector companies to operate the system. The state legislature here last spring mandated that the Metro Council solicit bids from private operators as well as an in-house proposal. The legislation required the council to compare the bids on the basis of cost as well as quality, meaning technical merit. My view is that it was exciting to be involved in the process, and to see it now from the point of view of the public-sector side; I had already been involved in such competitions when I was in the private sector. Now that you have been involved on both sides, what are the pros and cons of this approach? The benefits are that an organization is forced to become really committed to operate efficiently. When you are beginning a new start, you are allowed to set up your organization from a clean sheet of paper, so to speak. In this case, because we were competing for the job, it forced us to set up the organization with an efficient operation model in mind. For example, we had to have one class of electromechanical maintenance technicians, which is an extremely important discipline for a light rail system, and train them for that broader set of skills and responsibilities accordingly. In the end, competition is not a bad thing at all. I would recommend that the process be started earlier so that the successful proposer, whether our in-house operations and maintenance staff or an outside contractor, can be involved in the systems integration process. How and where this managed competition should be used depends on the city, the type of operation, the system size and whether the agency’s internal or industry resources are available to do the scope of work properly. How did the unions react to this process? The implementation agreement had already been concluded with the unions, so we needed to go back to them. Our argument to them was pretty commonsense: We need to be more efficient to compete, and if we cannot, then we will lose this to the private sector. It worked. We were the low bidder and highest rated in the technical evaluation. In the end, we proved that we could operate the most efficiently, and the process added a great deal to our credibility in the community and to our own morale internally. It gave us a lot of confidence as we went forward. Did you look at any operating models here or abroad as you set up a leaner organization? We looked at several. First, we engaged in an extensive benchmarking exercise, looking at probably seven or eight agencies in the U.S. alone, including those in St. Louis, San Diego, Portland, Oregon, and Salt Lake City. We tried to gather the best practices from all of them. In addition, we looked at several overseas systems. Croydon [outside London] was a system we received a lot of ideas from. In fact, our job description for vehicle electromechanical technician was taken directly from Croydon. We also took a little from our benchmarking of Sheffield, England. Developing a new organization within an agency, which has only operated buses for many years must create some interesting internal dynamics. What has been done to manage these changes within the agency? This is extremely important to good, seamless service between bus and rail and is essential to making all the planning I mentioned work. The dynamics here have been very interesting. In any city building its first rail line, you have to deal with the perception that rail will siphon off all the attention and resources from the bus side. Truth be told, in terms of human resources, rail operations do take a lot of resources from what would have been for bus operations. Twelve of our electromechanic technicians, 30 of our best bus operators and about five or six other good people came from our bus side to join our rail operation. It is a particularly acute challenge when you are dealing with a constrained budget environment like the whole industry is confronting. The key is to overcome the natural rivalry and even jealousy that can develop. It is very important for senior management to set the right tone for the rest of the organization. Our general manager, Mike Setzer, our assistant general manager of bus operations, Vince Pellegrin, and I have been involved in a lot of meetings to do this. Vince comes from L.A., and had good insight into how to manage this. The key is for the senior managers to show commitment to the right balance of service between bus and rail — particularly in troubled financial times. We have a very good, highly regarded bus system here, and the last thing we need to do is jeopardize that level of quality and reputation. What has been the biggest surprise in the first start-up experience of your career? The biggest has been that it’s a very hands-on job. I spend perhaps 85% of my time out in the field, sometimes with my overalls and hard hat on in the shops, out on the line, and much less time with a suit on in the office than I thought. This kind of hands-on approach is absolutely necessary because there are so many details that I need to handle.

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