Jul 8, 2020

Rail agencies faced with the need to repair or replace aging infrastructure often choose traditional methods to incrementally accomplish the work with minimal disruption to operations, opting to halt service only during distinct, overnight windows. The glut of aging infrastructure that needs attention, however, could force increasing numbers of rail and transit agencies to tackle costly and time-consuming infrastructure work in new, innovative ways.

Daren Petroski, PE

Vice President, Railroad & Transit

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New Approaches Balance Operational Needs with Cost and Time

The new approaches, honed over the past two decades, balance operational needs with cost- and time-saving efficiencies. They also can better balance myriad risks associated with rail and transit engineering and construction, and help ensure that capital projects don’t negatively affect crucial ridership numbers in the long term.

The approaches have worked well for a handful of US rail agencies that have implemented them. In Philadelphia, for example, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) implemented a new approach to its massive RailWorks project, which involved the replacement of 23 bridges, several miles of track, and catenary infrastructure on its vital, four-track main line between Wayne Junction and the Center City Commuter Tunnel. Faced with the prospect of a lengthy, five-year construction program that would cost more than $500 million, SEPTA appealed to industry experts to come up with a solution that would trim both time and cost. Ultimately, SEPTA chose to suspend service completely on three regional rail lines, and shorten the routes of three other lines, for two distinct periods over two years. Instead of doing work only during off-peak hours, SEPTA altered or suspended service for six months during the first window, and for four months during the second. While the option was challenging for both the agency and commuters, it cut construction time by three full years and saved an estimated $200 million.

The Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) used a similar approach when planning to replace track over the historic Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which connects Philadelphia with southern New Jersey across the Delaware River. PATCO trains normally run westbound into Philadelphia on one side of the bridge, and eastbound on the other. Rather than replacing both sets of suspended track only during distinct night-time hours, PATCO opted to close one side of the bridge completely over two separate summers, running both westbound and eastbound trains on one set of tracks while work was done on the other. The option resulted in unpopular delays and crowding, but allowed PATCO to complete the work in less than half the time originally considered, and saved as much as 40 percent in project costs.

“…allowed PATCO to complete the work in less than half the time originally considered, and saved as much as 40 percent in project costs.”

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While both PATCO and SEPTA lost both passengers and revenue as a result of the shut-downs, ridership on both lines has rallied, and the time and cost-savings achieved allowed both agencies to invest in other critically needed improvements elsewhere.

Fast-Track Design and Construction with “Master Builder” Approach

In New York City following 9-11, the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation needed to restore vital PATH rail service into Manhattan after tunnels and track were flooded from around-the-clock firefighting at the World Trade Center. Rather than using a traditional Design-Bid-Build contracting methodology, the Port Authority opted to use a unique approach that simultaneously fast-tracked both design and construction, rather than waiting for detailed design to be completed before construction commenced. A “Master Builder” approach was used where the designer and installer work collaboratively with basic performance criteria set that allows for fast tracking construction. A similar “Master Builder” approach has been used on massive capital projects in Europe for years, and allowed the Port Authority to get trains running again in far less time than would have been possible with a more traditional form of project delivery.

“A “Master Builder” approach was used where the designer and installer work collaboratively with basic performance criteria set that allows for fast tracking construction.”

In each of the three cases, the new project delivery approaches were bolstered by extensive up-front planning; a close collaboration among the agency, designer and builder; consistent and clear communication, and an understanding that design and construction efficiencies could only be achieved with a commitment to making decisions quickly.

Non-Traditional Approaches Benefit Legacy Rail Lines

While non-traditional approaches can be implemented by any rail or transit agency, they can be particularly useful for older, “legacy” rail lines in some of the US’s largest cities—lines with infrastructure that is near, or more than, a century old.

A variety of factors can make work on older, urban systems more challenging, costly and time-consuming than work on newer lines. Their age, urban locations, inherent unforeseen conditions, and busy operations that leave little room for downtime all make completing projects on time and within budget difficult. An approach that expedites design and construction and includes more aggressive service outages may help older lines—as well as their younger counterparts built in the rail renaissance of the 1980s—complete work in less time and for less money, and allow them to apply those savings to other areas and help further their goals of systemwide improvement.