Are Your Lights Iced?

by: Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

Image result for train rail flashing lights

Many highway and rail signals now contain Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). The switch to LEDs was made because of its energy efficiency. However, a one side-effect of this efficiency is that the LED lights don’t give off enough heat to melt snow or ice on their own. This can lead to the lights being obscured during winter conditions which can create potential safety hazards. In 2016, for example, there was a crash in Windsor, Ontario where a school bus entered an intersection against a red light and ran into a car. The bus driver did not see the red light-an LED, because the light was obscured by snow. Fortunately, there were no major injuries during that crash. Early this winter, the Minnesota DOT worked to clean off LED traffic signals after snow obscured signals in the Twin Cities area of the MN Highway 36, leading to at least one serious crash and many near misses.

In 2014, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released a report on LED traffic signal operations in snow conditions which suggested a number of proactive and reactive measures transportation departments can take to keep LED signal lights free from ice and snow. Reactive measures, employed after a snowfall, include manually cleaning the lights or spraying them with antifreeze, deicing spray or compressed air to clean them off. Each of these measures requires personnel to visit and work on each light. Proactive measures include installing signal lens heating elements or lens covers, or spraying deicing spray on the lights before it snows. As documented in the report, such proactive measures have had various degrees of success.

Two current research studies are testing new proactive approaches, both of which involve redesigning the LEDs lights used in traffic signals. Researchers at the University of Kansas have developed and tested self-de-icing LED technology and are now working on creating a full prototype for field testing. . Their approach is to mount the LEDs in the traffic signals “backwards” to harvest the heat generated by the LEDs to heat the light lenses and keep them above freezing. With this system, no additional heating is needed to prevent ice and snow from collecting on the traffic lights. The researchers have estimated that replacing the current LED lights with new LEDs will save about $28 per signal light annually, with a payback time of 4.5 years.

A second research study is looking at developing a super hydrophobic (anti-icing) surface coating for the lenses of traffic signals. The research is being conducted at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and is investigating femtosecond laser surface processing (FLSP) techniques for producing thin (nanoscale) anti-wetting surfaces on hard materials, such as tungsten carbide. Testing is being conducted find the best FLSP-functionalized hard material to use as a durable stamp for imprinting an anti-icing surface on the lenses of traffic signals. This study is scheduled to be completed later this year.

Don’t Get Derailed: The MBTA Is Still a Safe Transit System; Investment in Infrastructure Is Needed to Keep It That Way

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow, and Eric Gonzales, Professor, University of Massachusetts-Amherst 

The Green Line had six trolley derailments in 2016, according to the recently updated National Transit Database, and as described in a recent Boston Globe article. Combined with two subway maintenance vehicle derailments, this positioned the MBTA as the transit agency with the most derailments last year in the United States.

So what is behind this data? Why should we look closer?

Greenline

In 2015, the National Transit Database derailment figures began including derailments of vehicles not intended for passengers, including maintenance vehicles. This increased the MTBA’s reported annual derailments slightly. It is also worth noting that these published figures do not include derailments for commuter rail systems, as those incidences are instead reported to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The MBTA is this country’s fifth-largest mass transit system, based on daily ridership, and has the busiest light rail system (Green Line and Ashmont-Mattapan high-speed line). Derailments are less common for parts of the MBTA system beyond the Green Line. In 2016, the MBTA had its first derailments on the Orange and Red lines since 2001; both derailments involved vehicles that are not for passengers.

Sensationalizing this data only serves to create poor public opinion, and the MBTA leadership feels confident the MBTA system, including the Green Line, is safe. In 2016, none of the derailments resulted from a collision, and no passengers or employees were injured in a derailment. The number of annual derailments for the MBTA is down significantly (over 75%) from a high of 29 derailments in 2007, and the MBTA is committed to reducing derailment on the Green Line further through improved maintenance and monitoring. Even when no one is hurt, derailments impact service delivery and can shut down lines or stations for hours.  They can also undermine riders’ support of and trust in the MBTA.

There are, however, other challenges to the MBTA system, including its age and need for additional funding, as well as for maintenance. The Green Line is the oldest subway line in the United States, with tunnel sections dating back to 1897, and it is one of the oldest light rail systems above ground as well. Other systems topping the 2016 list of derailments include New Orleans and the San Francisco Municipal Railway, which are also historic systems. This is another reminder of the importance of funding investments in maintaining and rebuilding aging infrastructure. The challenge isn’t limited to the MBTA. The U.S. DOT estimates a nearly $90 billion backlog in transit infrastructure maintenance, just to preserve existing systems. In 2015, the MBTA’s maintenance backlog was over $7 billion, and it would need to spend about $765 million annually to eliminate the maintenance backlog over 25 years.

Although rapid transit remains a safe way to travel compared to travel by car, recent crashes on commuter railroads in other parts of the country are drawing attention to the limitations of existing infrastructure. Investments are necessary to ensure safe, reliable, and efficient mobility for the economic competitiveness and vitality of cities like Boston for decades to come.

 

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DC Metro : Getting Back on Track

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

One year ago, in March 2016, the entire Washington, DC, subway system was closed for 29 hours for emergency inspections. This shutdown came after a number of electrical fires oin the subway system, involving fraying third-rail electrical cables. In January 2015, a Washington Metro train encountered heavy smoke near the L’Enfant station due to a third-rail electrical issue and was forced to cease service. One passenger died from smoke inhalation and others were injured. On March 14, 2016, an electrical fire, caused by the same electrical issues as the Nee L’Enfant station incident, occurred near another station. There were fortunately no fatalities. Still, the Metro management shut down subway service a few days later to allow for a system-wide inspection of all third-rail power cables to proactively address system safety before further incidents.

Run by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Metro is the second-highest use rapid transit system in the United States, behind just  the New York City subway system, in terms of passenger trips, serving over 700,000 riders per weekday.  Metro is just over 40 years old and faces the many of the same challenges as older US transit systems, including inadequate funding and maintenance backlogs.

In May 2016, WMATA introduced SafeTrack, a comprehensive accelerated maintenance and repair program for implementing safety recommendations and needed upgrades to rail infrastructure.  SafeTrack involves the use of “surges,” intensive work on specific sections of the rail network and the shutting down of one or both tracks in those sections during this work, together with the reduction of Metro operating hours at night and on weekends to make more tracks available for maintenance.

Last week, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on its audit of the SafeTrack program.  GAO found that WMATA did not following leading management practices and “(1) comprehensively collect and assess data on its assets, (2) analyze alternatives, or (3) develop a project management plan”  prior to implementing SafeTrack.  In response to the GAO findings, Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Weidefeld stated that WMATA didn’t have time for comprehensive data collection before starting SafeTrack, because safety issues and delayed maintenance had reached a critical point and needed to be addressed as soon as possible. GAO recommends that WMATA develop a full asset inventory and a project management plan for those needed projects that may not qualify as major capital projects.  WMATA is now working to address GAO’s recommendations.

The GAO report found that SafeTrack “will require an additional $40 million in fiscal year 2017 funding.” It is not yet clear where that funding will come from.  Although many transit systems are challenged by inadequate funding, Metro is specifically impacted by one funding issue not faced by other large US transit systems:  Metro has no dedicated funding or revenue sources for its operating budget. WMATA relies heavily on year-to-year subsidies from the governments of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, which each have budget constraints and funding priorities of their own. In 2016, 47% of Metro’s budget came from local and state subsidies and 45% from fare revenue. In contrast, for the MBTA, 62% of the budget comes from dedicated revenue (such as the sales tax) and 33% from fares.  In New York, the MTA’s budget relies 36% on dedicated funding, 52% on fare revenue, and 8% on local and state subsidies.  WMATA currently has an almost $300 million annual budget gap.

DCMETRO

The Federal Transit Authority (FTA) provided some funding for SafeTrack repairs and maintenance. Increasingly, business leaders, DC officials, and others are calling for a dedicated source of funding or regional sales tax surcharge to support Metro operations. So far, these requests have faced opposition from Virginia and Maryland officials.  Proponents argue that dedicated funding is not only important for Metro system safety, but could relieve traffic congestion and spur economic development as well.

Also, last week, board members of Metrolink, the regional rail system in Los Angeles, met with the Metro Board Safety Committee to share Metrolink’s firsthand experience with the importance of making safety a priority.  The Metrolink officials showed a poignant video that Metrolink made following the most deadly crash in Metrolink history, a 2008 crash in which 25 people were killed when a commuter train collided with a freight train.  The video focuses on commitment and responsibilities of the Metrolink board regarding safety.  At the meeting,  Metro board member Michael Goldman suggested Metro could create its own video on the safety in the Metro system for its board members and the public.

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