Rail

Rail Project Profiles 2016: Denver, L.A., Chicago and Kansas City

Posted on June 17, 2016 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

Steve Hymon/LA Metro
Steve Hymon/LA Metro

L.A. METRO: Transforming the city's car culture

In March, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) launched its 11.5-mile Gold Line light rail extension, bringing the lines overall route to 31 miles. It was also the first rail project to be completed through the region’s Measure R — a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2008.

As of press time, Metro also just opened its second rail project funded by Measure R, the 6.6-mile extension of its Expo Line from Culver City to Santa Monica.

The measure is also funding a variety of transportation improvement projects throughout the region, including three Metro rail projects currently under construction — the downtown Regional Connector Light Rail Line, the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Line, and the Purple Line Extension subway project along the Wilshire corridor.

“Measure R is also funding various highway improvement projects and carpool lane additions throughout the region,” says Rick Jager, a spokesperson for Metro. “There is also a local return component to Measure R that returns monies to the 88 cities in L.A. County to use for their specific transportation improvement programs.”

The $1 billion Metro Gold Line extension in the San Gabriel Valley extends the line from its current terminus at Sierra Madre Villa Station in East Pasadena 11.5 miles east to Azusa and includes six new rail stations, providing access to locations such as City of Hope hospital, Azusa Pacific University, Citrus College and Santa Anita Racetrack.

The Gold Line was built by a separate authority called the Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority. They were charged with the environmental review and construction of all the segments of the Gold Line including the newest extension to Azusa that opened in March 2016. Once they completed the construction work, the line was turned over to Metro to operate and maintain as part of its rail system, Jager explains.

To keep the region’s momentum going, Metro’s CEO Phillip A. Washington recently unveiled a plan to increase funding for the region’s transportation projects.  

“We have released the expenditure plan for the possible ballot measure for public review, which, if approved by Metro’s Board of Directors, would ask voters to increase the countywide sales tax by a half-cent for 40 years and to continue Measure R for an extra 18 years, meaning both would potentially run through 2057,” says Jager.

The draft-expenditure plan under public review outlines more than $120 billion in transit and highway projects to be funded through a potential ballot measure. The Metro Board was set to make a decision at a meeting in June on whether to place it on the November ballot. During the public review period, Metro staff went out into the community and hosted a dozen community meetings, Jager says. In addition, the agency held telephone town hall meetings, during call outs to various regions throughout L.A. County to educate the public about the plan and potential ballot measure.

“The spending plan would fund a wide variety of transit and highway projects, roadway improvements, and pedestrian and bike paths to be built over the next four decades,” says Jager. “The foundation of the plan includes a host of transportation improvement projects submitted by stakeholders across the county.”

According to Metro, the performance benefits of the plan include an increase of 80 million additional transit boardings per year, or 3.2 billion additional riders, during the 40-year period. Additionally, the plan would increase transit mode shares currently at 7% to a projected 20% to 30%. The major projects are estimated to reduce regionwide vehicle-miles-traveled by nearly five million daily, reduce person-hours-of-delay on the road by 15% and reduce daily hours of truck delay by 15%, resulting in greenhouse gas reductions of 4%.

Metro estimates the new ballot measure would raise more than $120 billion. By comparison, the Measure R half-cent sales tax approved by county voters in 2008 is projected to raise $35 billion to $40 billion over its 30-year lifespan.

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Metra
Metra

CHICAGO METRA: Focusing on safety from the top down

Recently, Chicago’s Metra commuter rail system expanded the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Close-Call Reporting System (C3RS) across its entire operation as part of its commitment to safety.

“When there is an accident, the railroad industry has had a long history of investigating in order to find the reason it occurred,” explains Metra’s Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno. “The C3RS program allowed us to do what the aeronautics industry has been doing for the last 30 years, which is identifying trends so that we can address them before they lead to an accident or other issues.”

Metra launched the program last summer with unions that operate Metra trains and has now been expanded to include unions that work in Metra’s mechanical, engineering and police departments. Metra is the first U.S. commuter railroad to have a Confidential Close Call Reporting System that includes every union involved in the railroad’s operations.

Under the system, employees can confidentially report “close calls” — such as safety concerns or violations of operating rules — without facing sanctions from Metra or the FRA. The goal is to collect data about close calls that otherwise would have gone unreported or underreported and to use that data to identify safety hazards and take steps to correct them before an accident occurs. Those corrective steps could include new or better training, physical changes, changes to safety rules or changes to operating rules.

To maintain confidentiality, the close calls are reported to a third party, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which removes any information about the incidents that could lead to the identification of the employee. NASA compiles the data and then forwards it for analysis by a peer review team of labor, Metra management and FRA representatives, which recommends corrective action. NASA also monitors trends across railroads and shares results.

Since the program’s implementation last summer, Orseno says Metra has seen a reduction of about 13% in the amount of injuries, as well as a 20% reduction in the amount of lost days due to injury.

“We can’t say that because of this program these results are directly tied to the program, but it is definitely making a difference and we are very happy that the rest of the unions are on board and that they’re happy,” says Orseno. “When you look at the program as it is, it’s really a program about trust, and the more people believe and take ownership of what we’re doing, the more you can accomplish your goals as a railroad.”

C3RS is just one facet of Metra’s overall safety plan. The railroad is also looking to implement a Clear Signal for Action — a peer-to-peer program where Metra’s employees would go out and evaluate how other employees are doing their job.

“Sometimes you can’t see the forest from the trees, you need to step back and get a fresh set of eyes on things,” Orseno says about the initiative. “In our industry, we do things a certain way because it’s the way we’ve done them for the past 50 years. But things have changed, whether its tools, education or processes, and we want to embrace those changes to achieve our overall goals.”

The railroad has also redesigned their labor management and safety committees to form its Safety and Interactive Management (SIMs) team, which attempts to identify and rectify labor and safety issues as they happen rather than wait for monthly safety meetings to tackle the problem.

Additionally, Metra also currently has an RFP out for the installation of inward facing cameras and is in the midst of implementing Positive Train Control, which Orseno says will cost Metra close to $400 million.

All of these programs reinforce something Orseno says he and staff have worked hard to implement.

“We have a true safety-first culture here at Metra,” he says. “Nobody is afraid to step up and say that we need to work on something. We, as an organization, take things very seriously to ensure we have the safest railroad.”

Plasser American machines help meet rail system needs

Plasser American supplies machines for track and catenary maintenance to transit and commuter rail systems across the nation, including Denver’s Regional Transportation District and Chicago’s Metra. The company’s specific areas of expertise are designing and building machines to work within the restrictive clearances, including working around third rail, catenary wire and station platforms. Plasser’s machines are designed to meet the requirements of negotiating steep grades and sharp curves.

 The company’s product line includes track tamping machines, dynamic track stabilizers, prime movers, catenary construction and maintenance machines, mobile flash butt welders, vacuum machines and track geometry measuring vehicles — all of which can be designed to meet a customer’s specific requirements.

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Regional Transportation District
Regional Transportation District

DENVER RTD: 'Train to Plane' commuter line is a model for modern projects

Following the lead of several cities that provide rail transportation service from downtown to the airport, the Regional Transportation District (RTD) launched its University of Colorado A line commuter rail service to Denver International Airport in April.

The 22.5-mile rail line, which is RTD’s first commuter rail system, is among the nation’s first transit projects built by a public-private partnership and represents a milestone for RTD’s FasTracks transit plan.

The ambitious $6.5 billion FasTracks transit expansion plan for the eight-county metropolitan area was approved by voters in 2004. The multi-year program will build 122 miles of new commuter and light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit service and enhanced bus service, with many of the rail projects expected to be completed this year.

“The line is perhaps the most anticipated and probably has the most regional appeal of all the FasTracks projects,” says Nate Currey, sr. manager, public relations, for RTD. “This project has been in the works for nearly 35 years. Considering how far out our airport is, it is no small undertaking to get it connected by rail.”

The University of Colorado A Line connects Denver Union Station, which underwent a U.S. DOT-supported renovation in 2014, to the airport 23 miles away. A trip that would take motorists or city bus riders close to an hour has been halved with the new train service.

The line is also one of the first to be branded thanks to a $5 million, five-year deal with the University of Colorado.

“It’s a good way for us to seek new revenue for the agency, and because the line is one of the most highly visible, the branding rights got snatched up right away,” says Currey.

The University of Colorado A Line is part of the $2 billion Eagle Public-Private Partnership (P3) project, which includes the A Line, the under-construction Gold Line commuter rail project, a commuter rail maintenance facility and electric-multi-unit vehicles.

“P3s have been done, on a smaller-scale, on specific projects before,” says Currey. “But, for this type of endeavor, to have both federal government and the business sector come in and make an investment says a lot about the confidence and the regional cooperation that was occurring in Denver at the time it was passed.”

FTA is providing approximately $1 billion through its Capital Investment Grant Program, or 50%, toward the Eagle P3 set of projects. In addition, the U.S. DOT also provided approximately $62 million in other funds. The remaining cost was covered by state and local sources, including the private contribution.

“One lesson learned from this undertaking would be to have a cohesive vision and good regional cooperation when entering into a P3,” says Currey. “RTD was part of a pilot for the Penta-P Project, which was a federal program that was looking at how P3s would work. Then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood gave most of the funding to RTD, because the other regions weren’t cooperating and he the administration weren’t convinced their investment was going to have a return on investment.”

Under the P3 arrangement, the private team agreed to fund a share of the project, assuming much of the risks, allowing RTD to minimize public costs for construction. In addition to a safety review by the Federal Railroad Administration, FTA reviewed and approved a safety checklist covering platforms, surrounding roads and pedestrian improvements prior to the A Line opening.

“It ultimately comes down to how you write the contracts with the concessionaire, but it’s odd for us not to be setting the schedules for the line and making the necessary adjustments along the way,” says Currey of the P3 arrangement. “In fact, we don’t even have RTD employees out on the line, so there’s definitely a level of control we released on this. And, when issues arise, we have to turn to specific people in the organization to get it done, instead of being able to do it ourselves.”

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KC Streetcar Authority/Brian Rice Photography
KC Streetcar Authority/Brian Rice Photography

KANSAS CITY: Completes long road back to streetcars

Once the city’s primary mode of transportation, Kansas City boasted one of the most extensive streetcar systems in the nation. Following the shuttering of the last of its 25 streetcar routes in 1957, though, it was a long journey in bringing it back, until its new 2.2-mile line, in the city’s revitalized downtown area, launched in May.

After several starts and stops for both light rail and streetcar projects over the years, the KC Streetcar system finally got the go-ahead after a special district ballot initiative was passed in 2012, according to David Johnson, vice chair of the KC Regional Transit Alliance, who served as a member of the KC Streetcar Authority board.

“It was a segment that was studied multiple times as both light rail and streetcar, so there was a lot of information on the books, which made the planning process go very quickly once a plan for funding was in place,” he says. “The city was very aggressive and basically went from the alternatives analysis to grand opening in less than five years, which is pretty unusual.”

Part of a long-range plan to create a regional, integrated transit system to connect the Greater Kansas City area, the streetcar system runs primarily along Main Street in downtown Kansas City connecting Kansas City’s River Market area, which boasts the highest job density in the region, with Crown Center and Union Station, where riders can connect with Amtrak and local bus service.

“Our system actually looks and feels like a light rail line, but it has some operational characteristics of the Portland streetcar model,” says Johnson. “It is mixed-traffic, but also on a single street. It’s a pretty linear route and is actually pretty quick as far as travel times go, because we eliminated some stations along the way.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) helped fund the $103 million project with $20 million from a TIGER grant and approximately $17 million in other U.S. DOT funds.

Locally, the project was pushed through by a grassroots campaign, which Johnson was a part of, that helped with messaging to local businesses along the route as well as reaching out to voters to garner support for the measure.

“If you have to go through an election process, which not every city does, but if you have to, make sure you have the three pillars — elected officials, the business community and residents — lined up on the plan,” Johnson says about the advocacy process. “It’s hard enough to get these things approved and built, but if there are disagreements on the fundamentals, such as the route for instance, it will prove to be a very difficult process.”

Since its launch, Johnson says the system has exceeded expectations. The KC Streetcar system provided more than 100,000 rides in its first two weeks of service, including more than 26,500 rides on its first two days of operation.

Like many streetcar systems around the nation, the system has also stimulated economic growth and redevelopment, including new housing, retail and commercial projects. Since the streetcar project began in 2012, the city has recorded 40 projects along the streetcar route, including a $300 million, 800-room hotel and convention center under development, a $121 million project to convert a 30-story office building to apartments, and the $37 million renovation of a vacated theater that will house an 85,000-square-foot community center, according to KC Streetcar officials.

Although nothing is on the books yet, extensions of the streetcar system have already been proposed. The most recent of which, though, an approximate six-mile extension, was defeated by area voters in 2014.

Johnson says out of those efforts that a grassroots coalition is looking at taking a “much smaller bite at the apple,” possibly this year.

“Probably the most viable of the proposals out there is one that goes south from downtown to the urban university, which is a pretty clear-cut connection if you want to have solid ridership,” says Johnson.   

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