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Keeping On Track

April 2, 2020

A steep decline in ridership provides a unique opportunity for transit agencies to do major infrastructure work.

The Covid-19 pandemic is proving to be a humanitarian and economic nightmare. President Trump is forecasting as many as 200,000 American deaths, while shutdowns  have spiked unemployment claims and crashed financial markets. Major transit agencies—whose basic operations remain necessary to keep the backbones of our largest cities running with enough service to prevent crowding—are not immune from the damage. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is on track to receive a $4 billion rescue package from the CARES relief bill, at a moment when the system is about to start running billion-dollar monthly deficits.

Rail transit systems with backlogged maintenance schedules may be able to use this unforeseen period of diminished ridership to accelerate track work, in order to get the trains ready for post-pandemic recovery. Rail systems in Europe have moved ahead on maintenance plans amid reduced train schedules, subject to “social distancing” guidelines, while Maryland has already shaved a month off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge’s reopening with round-the-clock shifts in lighter traffic.

Every summer, Philadelphia’s SEPTA shutters its extensive trolley network for a 10-day “trolley blitz.” Because summertime has lower ridership, buses can handle the smaller crowds without too much disruption to commuters. More work can be done with unrestricted track access during a shorter, more intense total shutdown than during “nights and weekends” or “single-tracking” partial shutdowns, which can drag on for months. By this same logic, transit agencies should now explore the possibility of an accelerated maintenance blitz—on a scale unthinkable in normal times—to take advantage of low ridership.

In the recent past, both Boston and Washington, D.C. have accelerated partial shutdowns of their subway systems in order to respond to maintenance disasters—from track fires to power outages to derailments—predating the pandemic. New York’s MTA has already discussed closing entire lines “as a last resort” to add new “Communications-Based Train Control” computerized signals in its next capital-plan cycle. Individual station closures to upgrade elevators and wheelchair accessibility are slated, too.

Transit system managers prefer to make partial shutdowns because replacement shuttle buses can’t accommodate peak ridership. Replacing a major city’s entire rail transit system with temporary shuttle buses would involve deep interruption of service, and delays that would affect commerce generally. But ridership and congestion is so minimal in locked-down cities now that shuttle bus replacements for rail routes have never made more sense. Buses carrying critical workers can speed through empty streets while maintenace workers fix the trains running below and above. 

This endeavor would involve challenges. Major maintenance initiatives are typically funded months or years ahead of time, and detailed schedule guidelines are planned at least weeks in advance of even partial closures. It may be easy to issue a change order to expand track access for existing projects; planning and funding new maintenance or major re-signaling initiatives would be significantly harder. But weekend maintenance shutdowns on lines like the L train have long been planned and continue mid-pandemic.

Doing major track work in the middle of a pandemic would require cooperation between transit unions and management to ensure safe and feasible procedures—such as improved access to high-quality masks—prior to any attempt to call “all hands on deck” for maintenance. Dutch rail workers now repairing the train to Schipol Airport, for instance, are following the EU’s guidance for 2 meters of separation, similar to our “6 feet” rule.

Transit agencies and workers have a lot on their hands. The ridership collapse will strain budgets and require emergency federal funding. But total rail shutdowns and extended track-access hours would be ideal times to perform ongoing or planned work. The best thing would be for the disease to abate and the economy to open again as soon as possible, but if the shutdown continues to keep nationwide rail ridership down by 50 percent to 90 percent all summer, the pandemic does offer a unique, though unfortunate, opportunity to make necessary improvements to our cities’ crucial transit infrastructure.

Alex Armlovich is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

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