July 18, 2014

Philadelphia: Septa steps back from the brink

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Philadelphia is the United States' fifth largest city and boasts one of the country's most extensive urban and suburban rail networks, but decades of underinvestment have brought the system close to the brink of collapse. With new sources of funding finally coming on stream, Keith Barrow looks at how regional transport authority Septa plans to reinvigorate its rail assets.

THIS year marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of one of North America's largest public transport operators. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (Septa) came into being in 1964 with the purpose of coordinating government subsidies for public transport and railway operators in the area around Philadelphia, but as the 60s progressed its remit steadily grew. Septa took over the operations of the Philadelphia Transportation Company, assuming responsibility for its sizable network of metro, tram and bus lines, and subsequently acquired the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation company, extending its portfolio of tram lines and bringing the Norristown interurban line under its control.

Commuter rail lines were initially operated under contract to Septa, but these were turbulent times for the US railway industry, and with the Pennsylvania Railroad and Reading Lines filing for bankruptcy, regional passenger operations around Philadelphia also joined the Septa fold. The two formerly competing systems became a unified network in 1983 with the opening of a new cross-city tunnel beneath the city centre.

Today Septa operates two metro lines, 13 commuter rail routes and eight tram lines carrying around 690,000 passengers on its rail network on a typical weekday. However, while ridership hit a 23-year high in 2012, funding had reached a 15-year low.

Septa is governed by representatives of the city government and the five local counties it serves, with little input from the Pennsylvania state government, and this has provided ample scope for political squabbling and disagreement. As a result, the agency's first half century has been defined by a succession of crises, frequent retrenchment, labour disputes, and a failure to invest in the system.

The network currently has a maintenance backlog topping $US 5bn, and without additional funding this would reach $US 8.6bn within 20 years. Septa therefore decided to show the state government that the worst case scenario was rapidly becoming the reality. Last September Septa submitted a "service realignment plan" to the Pennsylvania state senate transportation committee to illustrate the drastic steps it would need to take if funding did not increase. The plan envisaged closing nine of its 13 commuter rail lines and one metro line, as well as converting the tram network to bus lines by 2023. This would reduce ridership by 40 million passengers per year, or 12%.

"Without extra funding it was clear the system would be decimated within 10 years," explains Septa general manager Mr Joe Casey. "Our bridges have an average age of 80 years, 100 of them are over 100 years old and some of them are large structures with long spans. We didn't have the funds to replace our tram fleet and we couldn't extend their life beyond 50 years. We were facing a lot of potential safety problems because we didn't have the resources to invest and bring the system back to a good state of repair, so would have needed to close those lines. Luckily we got the funding."

At the end of last year the state government passed Act 89, which authorises $US 2.3bn in funding for capital projects over the next five years and finally offers some hope to Philadelphia's beleaguered rail network.

Casey describes Septa's funding in the past as "woefully insufficient for the task," and it is easy to see why. Philadelphia has the sixth largest public transport network in the United States, but in 2012 had a capital budget of just over $US 300m. By contrast, Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority received around $US 800m and Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority averages $US 1bn per year in its current five-year plan. Furthermore, 60% of Septa's capital budget came from federal sources, a far higher proportion than any of its peers.

"This meant that over the years things got worse and worse," Casey says. "Now we have $US 600m - double what we had in the past - and that finally enables us to invest - but we probably need 10 years to catch up on a lot of things that were neglected due to a lack of funding."Philly

With a dedicated source of funding in place at last, Septa's first priority is to tackle the backlog of repairs needed to keep the existing network running safely. Last December the authority published its Catching Up plan, which details how it will invest in returning the system to a state of good repair. After decades of neglect, the scale of the problem is enormous. For example, City Hall metro station, one of the key public transport hubs in central Philadelphia, has seen little investment since it opened in the 1920s.

"A lot of our commuter rail lines were built around 1900 and Septa inherited them from bankrupt transit operators that had not invested in their systems, so today we still have substations that date back to the 1930s and in some areas we are one failure away from shutting down part of our network," says assistant general manager, operations, Mr Ron Hopkins. "We're finding it increasingly difficult to source parts for antiquated equipment. Sometimes we can borrow parts from Amtrak for the Pennsylvania lines, but we don't have that option on the Reading lines."

Septa anticipates that it will need to invest more than $US 160m over the next 12 years to modernise power infrastructure on its commuter rail lines. Around $US 1bn will be needed for its bridge rehabilitation programme to bring century-old structures up to modern standards.

Capacity on the 448km commuter rail network, which carries around 130,000 passengers per day, is also constrained by short platforms and a shortage of rolling stock. "We're working on our fleet problems but we need more capacity," Hopkins says. "The age of our fleet is a big challenge, we spend a lot on the maintenance and overhaul of our vehicles."

Septa's most recent acquisition is the fleet of 120 Hyundai Rotem Silverliner V EMU cars, which entered service from 2010 onwards. These were the first new commuter rail vehicles to join the fleet since the delivery of the final Silverliner IV vehicles in 1976 and replaced 73 of the oldest commuter vehicles while expanding the fleet to provide a modest increase in capacity.

However, Septa is still very much dependent on the fleet of 231 Silverliner IV cars, most of which are more than 40 years old and are beginning to show their age. Septa says it requires $US 1.42bn to replace the Silverliner IVs with 245 new vehicles and this would also fund the acquisition of nine bi-mode locomotives to replace its fleet of AEM-7 electric locomotives. Hopkins says Septa is looking at the possibility of purchasing double-deck coaches to provide additional capacity on the commuter rail system.

Ageing rolling stock is not just a problem in the commuter rail fleet. Trams used on the Media - Sharon Hill line and the Broad Street Subway fleet are well over 30 years old. The Broad Street trains will undergo life-extension, although Septa says the trams operate in a harsh environment and replacement is the most cost-effective option.

Car parking at stations is a key capacity issue on the commuter rail network and this is considered to be one of the major constraints on growth. Septa estimates it will need around $US 400m between 2018 and 2025 to expand parking facilities. "A lot of our stations are in older towns that have grown up around the railway and parking is a problem," says Hopkins. "Our neighbours don't appreciate commuters using their street as a car park."

Expansion

While bringing the network up to scratch is the immediate priority, Septa is still looking at how it can bring rail services within reach of a greater proportion of the region's population.

"Our main goal is to fix what we already have, including bridges, power supplies, and the fleet, but we are looking at potential extensions," Casey says. "We're not blind to the needs of the region and we can see there is a need to address certain markets. The population hasn't increased much in the last 30 years but it has spread outwards from the city, although recently the population of the city has begun to increase again for the first time in years. There is demand for Septa to chase this sprawl."

Options currently being considered include construction of a short branch off the Norristown High Speed Line from Gulph Mills to the King of Prussia Mall, one of the biggest out-of-town shopping centres in the United States. The mall is not currently served by the rail network, but bus services are often heavily loaded and reliability is hampered by traffic congestion in the area. An alternatives analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement planning study for the extension began in 2012.

Another project on the drawing board is the reopening of the western section of the Media/Elwyn commuter line between Elwyn and Wawa, which closed in 1986. The restoration of the line is expected to cost around $US 91m, although funding has not yet been agreed. "This could give us an extra park-and-ride station and would serve a lot of passengers travelling into the city from Chester County," Hopkins says.

Septa is also looking at how it can serve new residential and leisure developments at the former Navy Yard in south Philadelphia with an extension of the Broad Street metro line beyond its current southern AT&T terminus. Initial estimates put the cost of this project at $US 370-510m.

Tackling infrastructure constraints such as speed restrictions, obsolete signalling and short platforms on the existing network is seen as a primary means of making rail a more attractive and viable option for the region's commuters. "We have to address platform length, parking, frequency of service, because the demand is there for the service," Hopkins says. "If we address these issues and all things work together then more people would use the system. In 10 years time we see a system that is able to meet the needs of the city, but at the moment the city is constrained by the network. Both major highways into the city are bumper-to-bumper every weekday and most people want to use the train, but it's not practical to wait for an hour."

Casey is convinced that despite years of hardship, Septa has a strong basis to build a better public transport network for the Philadelphia region. "This is an old system but we have good bones," he says. "Many cities would love to have the network we have, but we need to invest and we need to improve it."

Energy storage trials exceed expectations

IN 2010 Septa committed to reducing its overall energy consumption by 10% within five years, a potentially huge saving both in terms of carbon footprint and electricity bills for an organisation which consumes around half a billion kilowatts of power annually.

The programme sought to utilise existing assets and develop projects which would be eligible for grant funding but could also be self-sustaining and generate additional revenues for Septa.

One of the flagship projects has been the implementation of wayside energy storage systems on the 700V dc third rail Market - Frankford metro line. This is Philadelphia's busiest rail corridor, carrying around 180,000 passengers per day with trains running at three-minute intervals during the peak and eight minutes at other times.

Septa signed an agreement in June 2010 with Philadelphia-based smart grid company Viridity Energy and the partnership subsequently secured a $US 900,000 grant from Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority to install an energy storage system at Letterly substation.

The Letterly installation was commissioned in 2012 and is built around a Saft 800kW lithium-ion battery with ABB Envitech power equipment and Viridity VPower energy management software, capturing and storing regenerative braking energy discharged by trains on a five-station stretch of the line.

As well as reducing power consumption by up to 2100MWh per year, the system unlocked a new revenue source for Septa by allowing it to sell energy back to the grid. With the ability to store energy, Septa is able to take advantage of fluctuations in energy prices and sells power back to the grid when demand is highest.

"Reducing energy consumption was always our primary goal, the second was reducing our energy impact and revenue came after that," explains Septa's chief engineer Mr Andrew Gillespie. "However, the revenues have been far higher than expected. This winter has been so cold that we expected to make $US 6000 per month, but we had two months when we made $US 20,000 and since January we've been averaging over $US 3000 per week. We expect to see a double bell curve, with mid-summer and mid-winter generating the most revenue. Overall we expect Letterly to bring in $US 150,000 per year."

Futhermore, Septa found the natural receptivity of the system can exceed 60% - far higher than anticipated - and the installation has lowered power consumption across the whole line.

At the end of 2013 Septa awarded ABB a contract to supply a second Enviline energy storage and recovery system, which is being installed at Griscom substation on the Market - Frankford Line. This installation, which has been funded with the aid of a $US 1.44m grant from the Federal Transit Administration, differs from the Letterly system in that it uses a hybrid storage system, combining supercapacitors with batteries, which ABB says will recover more braking energy, produce higher revenues from frequency regulation, and extend the life of the batteries.

The Griscom installation is due to be commissioned within the next few months and Gillespie says he expects the facility to achieve similar revenues to Letterly. "We have more than 30 traction power substations and we have identified 10 where these systems could be installed," he says. "You need to choose a substation where there is a high regeneration load but we wouldn't put them at locations with high power draw. Track geometry is also a consideration and you need the right braking and acceleration patterns."

Septa says the results of testing at Griscom substation will be made available to other public transport operators in the United States to help them make better informed decisions about how wayside energy storage might benefit their own operations.

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