Monday, June 26, 2017

Summer of the angry bear

Written by 
Summer of the angry bear

The news coming out of New York City hasn’t been very good lately: Daily, almost, service disruptions on the subway system. “Minor” derailments that injure passengers. A fatal injury to an LIRR maintenance-of-way employee. Forced service reductions at Pennsylvania Station to accommodate extensive maintenance of the interlocking plant.

Penn Station, undersized and overworked, has been succumbing bit by bit to both, having been made that much worse by un-remediated damage from Hurricane Sandy.

This is not a surprise. Penn Station has been undersized and overworked for 20 years. That it continues to function at all, much less function adequately until recently, should tell everyone—particularly those feigning shock, dismay and outrage, now that bill has come due—just how good those who engineered, built, maintained and operated—and still operate—the Penn Station terminal complex were, and are, at their jobs.

No matter how good the design, no matter how great the skill, you can only live off stored-up capital for just so long. And that’s what design, engineering, maintenance, and the institutional knowledge really are: embedded value. Sooner or later, no amount of skill—especially the institutional knowledge part—in operations or maintenance can overcome, or compensate for, obsolescence of the original design and engineering.

A bear can only hibernate for so long. Eventually, the fat runs out. Eventually, the temperature climbs. Eventually, the bear wakes up—and the bear is in a foul mood because the bear is hungry.

If we depreciated interlockings like we depreciate locomotives, we’d be discounting their value to $0 in 15 years or so, and living off the “fat” for another 10 years while we saved our money, made our plans, and went ahead with our programmed overhauls.

At the end of 25 years, we’d have a whole new fleet of interlockings, and parts of it would already be 25 years old and undergoing another round of complete component changeout.

At least that’s what we’d budget for. That’s how we would do our switch renewal projects: every year, so that every 15-25 years we would have replaced the entire interlocking configuration.

Of course, you can see the problem for complicated interlockings, like those that make up the Penn Station complex, where the total number of switches, crossovers and diamonds can exceed 200. Ten or twelve or fifteen complete crossover/switch replacements each year. That’s expensive. That’s a lot of employees working a lot of hours in a very small space with very little margin for error, or delay. That disrupts the service plan.

Let the bear sleep, Goldilocks. Just file the nails while she sleeps. Postpone replacing the entire paw.

So now the bear woke up. “Now what do we do?” as Hudson said in Aliens. Believe me, building a fire and singing songs won’t work. We have to manage this. We could not manage this then, before it went critical, without reducing service. We can’t manage it now without reducing service.

So look, what’s our goal here? Our plan is to absorb the disruption to the service plan to facilitate the required work. Our strategy is to accommodate as many of the peak period and non-peak period commuters as possible into and out of Penn Station, consistent with our goal, our plan. Our tactic is to increase the velocity of track turnover, to maximize the number of trains we can fit on the available platform tracks within the peak periods by ... reducing dwell time.

I’m not running Penn Station operations, and I’m not responsible for revising the LIRR and/or NJ Transit service plans in accordance with the capacity limits. I’m kind of glad I’m not. I’ve broken more than my share of telephones in my career.

And I’m a giving person. You know that. I love to give. I have a little experience with reducing dwell times. Maybe that might have some value in this summer of the angry bear.

So, I’d recommend:

• Utilize your available slots in Penn Station for your most heavily traveled lines, not trains, as the first determinant of priority.

• Trains originating from or destined to less heavily traveled lines should not operate into and out of Penn Station, even on the “shoulders” (the rising and tapering of passenger travel prior to or after the “peak of the peak”) of the peak, unless those trains handle a greater number of passengers to/from Penn Station than trains from the more densely traveled lines that arrive or depart the station 7 minutes either side that train. This applies even if the train for the less traveled line is scheduled for layover in a yard. Save your yard slots for the most heavily traveled lines.

• Do not turn inbound “revenue” trains into outbound “revenue” trains during the peaks if such a turn requires passengers to load/unload via stairways. This will create the famous New York City commuter “clusterf__k” and might get somebody hurt (probably you).

AM peak: Train arrives, unloads and either moves directly to the yard, or deadheads to a suitable location where connections can be made from (a) other terminals or (b) other transportation services.

PM peak: Trains destined for Penn Station unload at some suitable location and deadhead to Penn.

Short version of the above: Be prepared to blow off your reverse-peak service out of/into Penn Station, particularly if you are dependent upon the New York City Transit subway system for alternative service into/out of Manhattan. Let the reverse-peak customers make the subway move, not because you don’t like them, not because their money isn’t as good as anybody else’s, but because there are fewer of them, and the subway will be better able to handle that traffic.

Told you I was a giving person. Say “good morning” to the bear, and carefully watch its turns.





















David Schanoes

David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2008. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in the operating division, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is ten percent planning plus ninety percent execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That's not so simple.”

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