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A Crisis in Transit Maintenance

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eye on the news

A Crisis in Transit Maintenance

The U.S. spends lavishly just to keep its transit infrastructure operational. July 14, 2021
Infrastructure and energy
Economy, finance, and budgets

Many are aware of the United States’ world-leading incompetence at building transit infrastructure, thanks to such efforts as the Transit Costs Project at New York University’s Marron Institute. Less studied but equally important is a crisis in transit maintenance: the United States, especially New York, spends too much simply keeping its subways and railways in good order. As Congress debates an infrastructure plan that may send massive sums of money to wasteful repair projects, these costs deserve more attention.

One example familiar to many New York commuters is Metro-North’s New Haven Line. The majority of this line lies in Connecticut and is owned and maintained not by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority but by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. To save money, CTDOT maintains the tracks to a low standard that imposes a speed limit of only 75 mph, though trains run at up to 90 mph in New York, and much of the track could support still-higher speeds.

But even this shoddy maintenance is done at great expense and inconvenience to passengers. A State of Good Repair program has kept the New Haven Line under constant intrusive maintenance for decades while producing no noticeable improvements to service. Though the line has four tracks, large chunks of it function as a three-track line because of track closures for maintenance. Maintenance also requires trains to slow down to jogging speed for worker safety as they pass work sites. The result is that run times from New York to New Haven have actually slowed down over the past several years. As noted by Alon Levy, a researcher for the Transit Costs Project, Connecticut’s annual spending on State of Good Repair is comparable to a German track-renewal project meant to last 30 years. A report from CTDOT consultants estimates that reducing New York–New Haven trip times by only 25 minutes would cost $8 billion, though travel times could be cut by much more even without straightening tracks.

The New York City subway is another example of the crisis in maintenance productivity. The system’s operational expenditures are quite high compared with those of most other subways in the United States. The bulk of the premium, according to data kept by federal regulators, is maintenance costs: per track mile, New York’s maintenance spending on tracks and other immobile facilities is four times that of any other subway system in the nation, except for New Jersey’s PATH.

Excessive technological conservatism is likely a main contributor to high maintenance costs: many transit authorities opt for labor-intensive methods over new technologies that have long been standard internationally. For instance, track replacement in Europe today is commonly carried out using track-renewal machines: large contraptions that continuously move along a track, prying up and replacing rails and ties in one pass. According to Network Rail, the state-owned enterprise that owns the U.K.’s rail infrastructure, one team with a track-renewal machine can replace the ballast on a mile of track and replace the rails and ties themselves on three-quarters of a mile, within one overnight maintenance window; the resulting track is stable enough for full-speed operation the next morning. (Some American freight railroads also use track-renewal machines.)

Routine checking for track defects can also be automated heavily. For decades, the Japanese Shinkansen high-speed-rail network has been maintained with the help of specialized trains nicknamed “Doctor Yellow,” which carry equipment to examine the tracks and overhead wires for defects while running at a full line speed of close to 200 mph. Lower-speed subway systems in other countries also use automated maintenance, which have only limited deployment in the U.S.

Organized-labor interests bear some responsibility for inefficient maintenance. In 2018, the head of TWU Local 100, which represents New York City subway workers, and an ally on the MTA board objected that an MTA proposal to increase the use of automated track inspections would compromise safety. Never mind that rail-safety records in other nations are superior to those in the United States: the Shinkansen rail network has never had a fatal accident at speed.

But a still more disconcerting possibility is that agency heads don’t know that better maintenance technologies exist. Officials at Metro-North and CTDOT have demonstrated a lack of knowledge not only of routine European rail operations but also of relevant changes to American federal regulations that had been announced years in advance. According to Roger Senserrich, a political activist in New Haven, CTDOT entirely lacks an in-house design staff for rail projects and outsources such work to consultants. These consultants likely work principally on American projects, and they have little incentive to produce lower cost estimates.

Maintenance issues may not be as visible as construction-cost overruns, but they’re an important source of waste. Congressional Democrats’ initial infrastructure proposal, for instance, would have spent $39 billion on bringing the northeast corridor to a “state of good repair,” a cost per mile far exceeding that of a brand-new high-speed rail line in most of Europe. Modernizing maintenance practices, which in most cases means adopting technologies already routine in other countries, is an indispensable step in making American infrastructure more functional.

Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

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