Needed: a better way of keeping infrastructure working well


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network
Issue Date: Tue, 2010-08-31


The old way of maintaining America’s subways and other transportation components should be replaced, says a tech expert who has pondered the problems of Washington’s MetroRail system.

If the US is to make a pronounced shift toward compact, less resource-consuming patterns of development, Americans will have to rely increasingly on mass transit. And to accomplish that, we’ll have to find better ways of keeping the transit infrastructure working well, at a cost that doesn’t bleed public agencies dry.

One person who has given serious thought to how this might be accomplished is Ken Archer, chief technology officer of a software firm in Tysons Corner. Archer commutes to the northern Virginia edge city by bus from his home in the Georgetown section of Washington — a trip that gives him time to think about how metropolitan Washington’s transit system could be improved.

A major problem, says Archer, is the inadequate process by which much of the transportation infrastructure is kept running.

Just look at MetroRail, he suggests. Until recently, MetroRail was “considered by many to be the best subway system in the country,” Archer writes in a blog called “Greater Greater Washington,” available here. Much of the MetroRail system serving metropolitan Washington was built between 1970 and 1990, Archer points out. “Everything just worked because it was new.”

But in recent years, there have been difficulties: broken escalators and elevators, doors that won’t close, tracks that malfunction. The solution proposed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, is to replace all the aging infrastructure that is “at the end of its useful life,” Archer says. Unfortunately, that may cost a fortune.

“The 30-year-old Metrorail system requires many life cycle replacement costs for the first time, including the replacement of nearly one-third of the rail car fleet,” the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority states in its “Capital Needs Inventory.” “Similarly, Metrobuses need to be replaced and rehabilitated on a regular schedule.”

“Is ‘useful life’-based replacement really the solution?” Archer asks. Maintenance based on the “useful life” of infrastructure typically relies on scheduled maintenance, which seems at first glance to be a good thing but which has, in Archer’s view, “one fundamental weakness.” It boils down to this: “because maintenance is based on a calendar and not the objective condition of an asset, it is almost always either too late and a breakdown has already occurred, or it is way too early and thus wasteful.” He forecasts: “Scheduled maintenance could bankrupt our country while still leaving it with an unreliable infrastructure.”

What might be done instead? Archer proposes shifting to “reliability-centered maintenance.” This model “initiates maintenance activities when monitors or tests indicate that an asset’s condition is likely to lead to breakdown.” For example, remote sensors can easily monitor vibration or temperature, two of the most common leading indicators of breakdowns. With reliability-centered maintenance, the aim is to “initiate the right maintenance at the right time. The result,” says Archer, “is that maintenance is less costly and more effective.”

Some monitoring equipment is already in place. Washington’s transit agency, he notes, has already equipped most of its buses with instruments that “continuously survey the bus during operation, silently collecting fault, performance, and service data from braking, electrical, engine, transmission, security, fare collection, accessibility, and climate control systems, and then automatically uploading the data nightly.” The agency is also using “asset management software,” another sign of progress, he says.

The next step, Archer argues, is for the transit agency to select a general manager with experience in reliability-centered maintenance. This mode of maintenance has been introduced in the airline and defense industries, “and it will eventually be done in transit,” he says.

“Much of the nation’s built environment was built in the same generation as MetroRail, and our daily lives have become increasingly dependent on this infrastructure,” Archer observes. “Maintenance of aging infrastructure is thus not just a Metrorail challenge but one of the leading challenges facing the country.”

Posted by Philip Langdon on 31 Aug 2010