Railway Age/RT&S LRT Conference Spotlights the Tech Side

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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Tour participants rode the new one-stop GLX branch across Red Bridge Junction to Union Square in Somerville that entered service March 21, 2022. All photos by William C. Vantuono except where noted.

More than 100 conferees from transit management and the supply and consulting industry gathered in Boston on Nov. 16-17 for “Light Rail: Planning, Engineering & Operations,” which returned to an in-person format following two virtual events in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Presented by Railway Age and Railway Track & Structures, the annual conference was held at a hotel now under the Courtyard by Marriott brand, but which had achieved renown first as the Elks’ Hotel and later as the Bradford, which housed the studios of legendary radio station WBZ and later hosted the wedding reception for a young Senator Jack Kennedy and his bride Jackie in 1953. The conference venue was in the middle of Boston’s Theater District, a few blocks from Chinatown, and strategically located between Back Bay Station and South Station, the Northeast Corridor’s northern terminus

Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono moderated the conference, which concluded with a tour of a portion of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) GLX (Green Line Extension) project. Most of the sessions concerned technical issues about light rail, including design, interactions with other modes of rail transportation and regulatory matters. The technical sessions included a detailed overview of light rail at the The T”, Boston’s city-wide and regional transit provider. The sessions included presentations by conference sponsors highlighting their products.

Eric Stoothoff, Chief Engineer and Acting Chief Operating Officer at the MBTA, kicked off the proceedings with the keynote address. He presented an overview of the T, highlighting its “diverse operations” and the challenge of taking a century-old system and looking toward providing service in the future, including “modernizing transit access for all.” He asserted: “This industry has lost its North Star” and called for getting back to the basics of “S&S”: Safety and Service. He concluded by saying: “We’re changing the culture of a century-old industry.”

The next presenter was Rachel Burckardt, Assistant Vice President and Senior Manager at WSP USA, who summarized the history of the T, beginning with the horse-drawn cars that ran 160 years ago. Burckardt described the negative side of the agency’s history with the decline of streetcar and elevated lines over the years, as well as the positive side, with the transformations from horse-drawn to electrically powered vehicles and from streetcars to light rail. The historic highlights included the conversions from regional rail lines to streetcars on the Mattapan Line in 1929 (still running with historic PCC cars) and the Highland Branch into the Riverside line in 1958, now light rail transit.

Dave Zuercher, Sales Engineer with MAC Products, Inc., then gave a “Sponsor Spotlight” presentation, describing his company’s Rigid Catenary. He touted its use for tunnels and in maintenance facilities, and described its application at the portal of the T’s Fenway Tunnel.

Alfred E. Fazio P.E. of BRT Rail Services, and a Contributing Editor at Railway Age, was next on the program. His talk on “Lessons on Engineering Design” stressed the relationship between engineering and operations, and that the goal of good engineering is to produce “something better than it was intended to do.” He asserted that transit is using “excessive” rights-of-way and said,“You have to build your own ROW to get there” in places like California. He also related the story of how track geometry cars were originally used on Conrail’s lines in the 1970s for maintenance and planning purposes, but Amtrak and the FRA picked up the idea as a precursor to high-speed rail on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC).

John Mardente, a civil engineer in the Passenger Rail Division of the FRA, spoke about Technological and Operational Developments in Shared-Use LRT and Freight. A New Yorker from Queens, Mardente began his talk by saying “transit saved my life,” and related how he took long rides on the subway to City College of New York in Uptown Manhattan. “Transit is a ticket for a lot of people for mobility,” he said. He described the differences between the FRA and the FTA, saying that the former should be more concerned with avoiding accidents than calculating their cost, and described the new involvement by the latter with transit safety.

Mardente cited several provisions from the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) that concern transit, described how the FRA and the FTA obtained their respective authority over rail safety, and stressed the importance for managers of being familiar with statutes and regulatory rules that affect their agencies’ operations. He discussed the provisions that trigger FRA jurisdiction over a light rail operation, particularly temporal separations that require those operations to end their service day by mid-evening, so freight trains can use the line at night.

The lunchtime speaker was Kevin S. Corbett, President and CEO of New Jersey Transit (NJT). Corbett began by mentioning the importance of passenger rail and the challenge of competing for resources and safety, and he gave a shout-out to the FRA for helping NJT finish construction required to complete installation of Positive Train control (PTC) in time to meet the year-end 2020 deadline. He went on to describe his agency’s continuing recovery since the COVID-19 virus struck, noting that “light rail is an excellent way to restore service when it’s not suitable for bus.”

Corbett said that he sees “a good future for light rail” and expressed his optimism about ridership growth. He described NJT’s three light rail operations: Newark Light Rail (part of which is the sole surviving line from the state’s once-vast streetcar network), Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit and the River LINE (a diesel LRT between Trenton and Camden). He also mentioned GCL (Glassboro Camden Line), a River LINE extension now in the planning stage. He also touted new development in Newark due to transit, but complained that there was no value-capture for NJT from the increase in property values.

Corbett added that COVID relief funding from the feds was a break for transit, but also stated concern about funding in the longer-term, a sentiment also expressed by managers at other transit agencies. In response to a suggestion from Vantuono that NJT look toward regionalizing and standardizing fares, Corbett said he favors the idea, but warned about political issues surrounding the concept.

Industrial designer Cesar A. Vergara of VergaraStudio kicked off the afternoon session with a presentation on LRV Interior Design for Post-COVID Operations. He began by describing industrial design as “trying to make something look good without costing more.” Design is “1% of the cost, but 100% of what you see.” He noted that the industry uses the term “mass transit” because “we are supposed to be together” when we ride. Part of the challenge in the post-COVID era is making vehicles attractive yet easy to sanitize.

The next presentation was a Sponsor Spotlight by Robert Hanczor, CEO of Piper Networks, who described his company’s system for positioning trains. It’s a non-CBTC approach with wideband localization. It uses wayside radio signals, mixed with signals from radios on trains, like a transponder. It uses complimentary sensors, which he said could keep track of train length in real time.

Nate Asplund, Executive Vice President of Railroad Development Corp., then presented his company’s plan for “Pop-Up Metro” systems developed by Henry Posner III, and potential applications for it in the U.S. Asplund began by saying that the most-important three-letter word is “NOW” and that his company’s system could establish demonstration projects for passenger service on freight-only railroad lines quickly, for experiments to determine the viability of passenger trains in the long term. He said that the best markets for such service were local and short-haul, in places where there is not enough freight traffic to preclude passenger trains from running on the line in question.

These demonstrations would use cars that once ran on the London Underground and have been re-purposed. The units would hold 194 passengers and run at a top speed of 62 mph (100 kph) in the U.K. Railroad Development Corp. would set up the service, including the regulatory work and building infrastructure like charging stations for electric operation and modular platforms. If the service succeeds, the sponsoring agency could keep it going. If not, it would be easy to take the temporary structures down at the end of the trial period. Asplund said that host railroads often have “misaligned objectives, too much on CAPEX and not enough on OPEX.” He added that the passenger services his company could help establish would bring in extra revenue for potential host railroads, and he concluded by announcing two demonstration runs in December on the East Broad Top Railroad in central Pennsylvania, a historic line that operates as a tourist railroad today.

Katherine Wickham, New England Transportation Market Leader for VHB, then presented another “Sponsor Spotlight” where she described how her company marketed the new Union Square Green Line Extension (GLX) in Somerville. She described the Alternatives Analysis for the T’s newest branch and said that Somerville has “little transit but a dense population.” She added that “maintenance facilities are the hardest thing to site, get permitted, and get built.” She described the regulatory process of getting the new start going and said that she and her colleagues “really worked with the community,” noting that the planning process has to be community-driven, with political buy-in and ownership.

The next presentation focused on Houston’s light rail system, with Ken Luebeck, Houston Metro’s Director of Operational Engineering. He described in detail the system that Metro uses to integrate the signal system on the LRVs with street traffic signals on the 27 intersections on the rail line in downtown Houston. The object is to synchronize train movements to avoid conflicts with vehicles on the streets, which would also avoid delays of up to 29 seconds at each intersection. As part of his presentation, Luebeck described in detail each event that occurs with every train at each intersection.

The final presenter of the day was Larry Warren, Regional PTC Specialist at the FRA for New England. He described Vital and Non-Vital Temporal Separations as they pertain to LRT. Warren said that the objectives of temporal separation are preventing collisions and derailments, movements of misaligned switches, and incursions into work zones. He noted that PTC can help enforce civil speeds and reduce risk. He explained the roles of office, wayside, locomotive-based, and communications systems, citing Appendix C of 49 C.F.R. Part 236. He also described other instances of FRA regulation of transit, such as PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) trains between New York City and nearby New Jersey, and limited operation exceptions to temporal-separation rules on a case-by-case basis, under a temporal separation or risk mitigation plan. He did not mention the effects of temporal separation rules that allow light rail and freight operations on the same segments of railroad, but they often require that the service day for the light rail operation end during mid-evening, which precludes later-evening service.

Thursday With The T

The half-day session on Nov. 17 started with a panel about the MBTA Green Line and Mattapan Line Transformation Projects. Rachel Burckardt, who had presented the previous day, made a return appearance. She began with a “light rail transformation overview,” a description of transit-oriented development (TOD) along the northward GLX into Somerville, and claimed that it “builds community and employment.” The Lechmere Viaduct, at the end of the line before the extension was built, was rehabilitated, and proposed Type 10 (long and articulated) units will run on it eventually. The Mattapan Line, which runs from the end of the Red Line subway at Ashmont (in Dorchester) and currently runs with historic PCC cars, would be modernized to run with Type 9 cars.

John Dalton, the T’s Program Manager for the GLX, gave an overview of the project. The branch from Lechmere to Union Square opened for service on March 21, while a five-stop branch through Somerville to Medford (the home of Tufts University) is scheduled to open for service on Dec. 12. Dalton said that developing and building the GLX was “a bumpy road over the past three decades” and noted “the challenge of building in the shadow of rail transit.” The Lechmere station was moved across the street from its original location, and Dalton said that the project will make transit more available in Somerville, where 80% of residents can walk to the line and TOD buildings are under construction. He mentioned the halt in construction in 2015-16 due to cost overruns, so the project was re-sized.He said that the project was built “in the shadow of the Big Dig” (a massive highway project that disrupted the city for years but did not include a hoped-for rail connection between Northside and Southside passenger rail services), and more than 1,000 people helped build it.

A.J. Tanner, Project Manager for the Mattapan Line Transformation, described that project and added that he wants “to capture the ambiance and spirit of the PCC” cars that run on the line today. The line itself was converted from a conventional railroad line in 1929, and the PCCs have run there since 1955. The line is short, consisting of eight stations, with a running time of twelve minutes, end to end. Amanda De Giorgi, Deputy Project Manager for HNTB, described how the PCC cars were shored up during the transformation and mentioned that the T had considered other alternatives, including making the line a busway and running recently built heritage-style cars, like the ones that run on Canal Street in New Orleans today. Philippe Santos, Program Manager for HNTB, described the infrastructure changes made to modernize the line for running Type 9 cars in the future. William Wong, GLX Fire and Life Safety Officer for Arup, described the safety features that were added, including new signs for egress.

Fred Guenther photo

Rachel Burckardt returned to conclude the panel with a description of the Red Bridge Junction component of the project, located between other rail lines on the way to Union Square, and described as “a spaghetti bowl,” a term commonly used to describe a maze of highways in a place like the Meadowlands in northern New Jersey.

The final two technical presenters discussed Converting Legacy Systems to Modern LRT Standards. Anthony Fazio, Manager of Rail Projects for Jacobs Engineering, described the changes to the vehicles, including rehabbing the PCCs to modern standards, including accommodations for persons with disabilities. He mentioned several technical specifics, including how traditional switching is now done electronically, low-floor boarding and floating trucks without axles connecting the center wheels, but warned that a conversion from trolley poles to pantographs requires redesigning the entire network.

The other presenter was Bill McClellan, Assistant General Manager for Rail at the T. He described the old control center, and the old process of cars checking on each other by radio. He also described a situation where a lawsuit by disabled persons forced the agency to install bridge plates, which are not compatible with older vehicles. He called for improved grade crossing protection and provisions for left turns, and concluded by saying that cars capable of running off-wire with charging stations make more sense than operations that require cars to run under wire at all times.

This writer was the final presenter at the conference, with a commentary on LRT’s Future in North America. To a great extent, my remarks tracked what I said in an article headlined LRT Growth Continues, But at Restricted Speed, found in the November issue of Railway Age (at 34) and posted on the Railway Age website.

Touring the GLX

Most transit conferences include a tour, and so did this one. It consisted of a relatively short round-trip ride and opportunities to inspect two stations, one recently built to replace a historic station, and the other at the end of a newly opened one-stop extension.

The tour started at Boyleston Street Station, one of the original stations from 1897 on today’s Green Line. The station retains much of its original look, and includes two historic cars exhibited on a piece of track from a former line that is now abandoned. The tour included a northbound ride over the partially rebuilt line, six stops to the new Lechmere Station. Built for the GLX, it is located across the street from the 1912-vintage station it replaced. After inspecting Lechmere, the tour rode the new one-stop branch across Red Bridge Junction to Union Square in Somerville that entered service March 21, 2022. After inspecting the station and taking advantage of an opportunity to ask questions to GLX Deputy Program Manager Terry McCarthy and Martin Nee of City Point Partners, all participants returned to Boyleston Street Station.

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