Eno Releases New Recommendations for Improving the Nation’s Rail Transit Infrastructure

May 17, 2018

Infrastructure Week, which kicked off on Monday, was about rebuilding our transportation systems as much as finding ways to expand and improve them. The American Public Transportation Association released a new report that highlighted the dramatic need to reinvest in our rail systems. The growing state of good repair backlog in public transit is nearly $90 billion, of which $50 billion is on the seven largest rail networks. Securing new funding must be part of overhauling the rail systems, but the real overhaul needs to be in how agencies conduct their asset management and maintenance programs.

On Monday, Eno released a new report, Tools for a Smoother Ride: Managing Rail Assets and Leveraging Competitionwhich outlines the reforms needed to bring our rail systems into a state of good repair. The report’s recommendations include five steps that agencies and governments can take to reform and modernize how the industry approaches maintaining rail systems.

Know what you are maintaining

During the course of the research, experts made it clear that asset management practices in the United States are inadequate to meet today’s maintenance challenges. Agencies today often rely on outdated and insufficient methods for understanding the condition of their networks, and rarely program repairs into their long term capital plans.

Modern plans and processes based on the actual observed condition of the infrastructure—predictively repairing or replacing them when conditions and timing warrant—are needed. Such an approach requires structural and cultural change, and significantly more initial investment to coordinate data from sensors, monitoring devices, and human observation. While the federal government has stepped in to require transit agencies to pay better attention to maintenance, the industry still lags international best practices.

Leverage competition

The paper also explores the use of private contractors for some or all of track maintenance, which is often proposed as a solution to maintenance challenges. Contracting out does not necessarily offer a better approach to rail maintenance but, if done carefully, it may create a different set of incentives and accountability than some agencies rely on today. The paper recommends agencies test contracting with private companies to maintain a portion of the system for an extended period of time, holding them accountable with incentives to reward excellent performance, and penalize anything sub-par.

Protect the public interest

If considering a contracted approach, an agency must act to minimize negative effects on the existing workforce. Through the procurement process, agencies can set labor standards for contractors, and design performance metrics that can transparently evaluate the performance of the system in ways that actually matter to the riding public. Contracting does not absolve the public sector of responsibility for overseeing the system and ensuring that maintenance teams are doing their jobs safely.

While new funding is absolutely necessary, the industry must rethink its approach and culture toward maintenance. If more public dollars are going to be infused into repairing the rail networks, accountability, competition, and best practices must accompany that new funding. With so much of the nation’s economy dependent on efficient rail networks, maintenance backlogs should one day be a thing of the past.

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