Lessons of ageing infrastructure from our American cousins

THERE ARE great similarities between America’s North East Corridor –connecting Washington DC, New York and Boston – and Britain’s West Coast Main Line. Both link a series of major cities. Both are struggling to cope with growing demand. Both have to handle express, regional and commuter passenger services plus a variety of freight trains. And both are reliant on ageing infrastructure.

With recent warnings from David Higgins – Network Rail’s chief executive, soon to take over as chairman of HS2 Ltd – that routes such as the WCML cannot continue to rely on Victorian infrastructure, rail operators and engineers in Britain might do well to take note of the enforced railroad chaos north of New York City that has been producing headlines in America since last week.

Caused by failures of a high-voltage power line supplying the overhead electrification system on the heavily used route between New York’s Grand Central Terminal and New Haven, Connecticut – carrying around 130,000 commuters a day, far more than the WCML alone into London – the chaos continues.

Traction power for the route north of New York City is provided by two 138kV feeder cables. One of them was taken offline several weeks ago as part as a planned upgrade. It is not known what caused the second feeder cable to fail but the outage, officials said, could take as long as three weeks to repair. Commuters have experienced hours-long delays since the power outage, and highway traffic has been bumper-to-bumper in parts of Connecticut as people took to the roads to get to and from work. Interstate 95 – the North East Corridor’s main highway, equivalent to the M1 motorway in Britain — was reported as becoming “a virtual parking lot”.

Connecticut’s Governor, Dannel P. Malloy, warned commuters to expect significant delays, and the New York and New Jersey MTA (Metropolitan Transport Authority) also urged people to leave additional time for their morning commute and suggested they organize carpools and other alternatives, such as working from home.

The power failure has hit not only commuter services operated by the MTA’s Metro-North Railroad, but also Amtrak’s intercity services between Boston, New York and Washington DC, including the high-speed Acela services.

Politicians are demanding to know what went wrong – and why it is taking so long to put things right. US Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York said they wanted a federal audit and investigation.

“To grow jobs and strengthen our economy, safe and reliable rail service must be a top priority, and it is simply intolerable for a single cable failure to imperil that progress,” Senator Blumenthal said.

With similarities to what is happening in Britain, Richard Ravitch, the former New York State lieutenant governor who was for four years chairman of the MTA, told the Bloomberg news agency: “The demand for rail service in the north east United States is increasing enormously. We do not have the capacity that we need. We need a modern rail system that half the countries in the world have that we don’t have.”

Echoes here, perhaps, of David Higgins’ recent warning that Network Rail must catch up on a whole generation of under-spending on Britain’s rail network.

David Higgins said the WCML’s route alignments and structures are now over 170 years old, the electrification equipment is up to 50 years old, and much of the signalling has an average age of around 40 years. “The West Coast Main Line has all the problems of living in a Victorian house,” he warned.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the New York-New Haven line may need as much as $3 billion (£1.85 billion) just in repairs to improve reliability, according to Amanda Kennedy, a director at the Regional Plan Association, an independent urban research group. “Age is catching up to the railroad again,” Ms Kennedy told Bloomberg.

In another example of concerns about the age and condition of US infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers earlier this year gave America’s rail and energy infrastructure low ratings (both D+), saying that between 2007 and 2011 the number of significant power outages rose from 76 to 307.

“The electric system in general in this country [USA] is older and it is being used in a higher capacity,” said Ruth Johnson, a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “It’s not a dissimilar problem to bridges or roads or water pipes. It’s an issue for the country in most of the infrastructure and facilities.”

David Gunn, a former chief executive officer of Amtrak, which also uses the infrastructure in the North East Corridor, said: “It’s a very old, electrified railroad that Metro North has been steadily upgrading,”

Amtrak is now planning to expand services with upgraded infrastructure and building new routes after spending little on capital improvements in the 1990s, according to Bloomberg. But the corporation, which receives support from the US and state governments, failed to gain the $2.1 billion (£1.3 billion) in federal support for capital projects it requested this year.

* During 2014-15, in a planned version of the unscheduled disruption north of New York, the West Coast Main Line will be closed for a total of 36 days – some during Bank Holiday periods, but also for 16 continuous days next August – to enable renewal of track, signaling and electrification infrastructure in the Watford area. Network Rail says the alternative would be 54 weekend closures.

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