APTA | Passenger Transport
January 3, 2011

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Public Transit Agencies Step Up as Winter Storms Strike U.S.
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor

Public transportation agencies went the extra mile in December as much of the U.S. dealt with heavy snowfalls, high winds, and other forms of severe winter weather. Safety was critical; moving people and equipment were paramount. Below are a few examples of how public transit responded to and prepared for inclement weather conditions.

Massive Flooding
Earlier in December, parts of California took a pounding from heavy rains—and, as a result, endured flooding and mudslides. According to Larry Rubio, chief executive officer of the Riverside Transit Agency (RTA) in Riverside, CA: “The storm front that hammered our region last week certainly caused some challenges for the Riverside Transit Agency, but it also brought out the best in our staff—from coach operators, to dispatch, to our customer information center—who monitored the situation round-the-clock and ensured that our passengers got to their destinations safely.”

Rubio said the severe weather had flooded streets, downed trees, and caused delays and detours for several RTA routes, but that service had resumed mostly normal operations by Dec. 27.

Major Snowfalls
An unprecedented storm Dec. 26 buried New York City in almost two feet of snow, leaving residents of “the city that never sleeps” without some of their daily transportation lifelines. Employees of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) worked around the clock to restore service throughout the 5,000-square-mile service area in a manner safe for their customers, employees, and equipment. Workers cleared snow from tracks, roadways, platforms, and stairways and de-iced such critical infrastructure as switches and third rails.

MTA New York City Transit continued to run its subways at below-ground stations, but had to cope with outages on elevated lines and lines that operate in open cuts. MTA crews cleared buses stuck in snowdrifts and evaluated roadway conditions for individual routes before restoring bus operations where possible. MTA Long Island Rail Road resumed very limited service late the next day between New York Penn Station and stations on four branches, while MTA Metro-North Railroad maintained limited service on all its lines.

Similarly, employees of New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJ Transit) worked non-stop for several days to extract more than 100 of the fleet’s 2,000 buses from the snow. “It’s been a Herculean effort,” said Jim Gigantino, vice president/general manager of bus operations for NJ Transit. “Our bus operators, maintenance crews, and support personnel have worked in the most extreme conditions to restore service and get our customers safely to their destinations.”

The weather conditions meant that NJ Transit did not operate its bus lines from the evening of Dec. 26 until early Dec. 28. During that time, bus operators provided assistance to stranded motorists on the Garden State Parkway at the request of the New Jersey State Police.

NJ Transit rail service operated on an enhanced weekend schedule as crews dug out and inspected about 140 of the system’s rail cars buried by snow in outlying railyards. More than 40 rail cars required repairs.

The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) in Salt Lake City learned from its experiences with bad weather earlier this season. “Our trains generally do well in the snow and cold, but our light rail vehicles can have problems with the doors jamming when there is a lot of snow accumulation over a short period of time and crews cannot clear the platforms quickly enough. Fortunately, that only happens a few times a year,” said UTA General Manager Michael Allegra.

UTA’s bus service to ski areas uses vehicles “equipped with chains that automatically deploy, so they do very well in the canyons and don’t have much trouble with stormy conditions,” he added.

Winter Preparedness
When snow began to fall in North Carolina, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) activated its winter response plan—which included an alert button at the top of the agency’s home page.

As it happened, advance knowledge of the coming storm meant that CATS had no trouble with the area’s Christmas weekend snowfall of three to four inches, said Bryan Leaird, general manager of safety and security. He cited the city’s pre-treatment of roads and the fact that CATS was operating on a holiday schedule for the system’s ability to remain in operation without delays or having to change routes.

Stephen Spade, director of Chapel Hill Transit in Chapel Hill, NC, also noted the benefit of advance planning—in this case, the fact that the snowstorm came through on a holiday when the agency would provide limited levels of service regardless of weather conditions. He said the area received only five to six inches of snow, which had no negative effects on the dozen buses on the road Dec. 27.

In the Midwest—an area that knows to plan ahead for severe winter weather—Metro Transit in Madison, WI, posted a video on its web site showing safe travel tips when snow and ice are on the ground. The most important tips? To allow extra time for the trip, since buses have to deal with traffic backups as well as mobility concerns, and to wait for the bus on a cleared sidewalk rather than on top of a snowbank or other unstable area.

Intergovernmental partnership is another way that public transit systems can prepare for inclement weather. For example, last fall the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet) in Portland joined representatives of city departments and Oregon DOT to prepare for the onslaught of winter. The agencies reviewed their preparedness plans and dispatched trucks fitted with chains, plows, and sanders for test runs on major roads that generally follow public transportation routes.



Photo by MTA Photographer Patrick Cashin
NYC Transit buses along the B35 route in Brooklyn cope with the late December snowstorm that dumped almost two feet of snow on the metropolitan area and buried parked vehicles.

Photo by MTA Photographer Patrick Cashin
An NYC Transit employee shovels snow off the platform of the N Line subway station at 8th Avenue and 62nd Street in Brooklyn.

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