Resurrecting Transit

John Inglish is an interesting dichotomy of a man. On one hand he is an understated and humble Everyman who deflects praise as deftly as Utah Jazz star Andrei Kirilenko deflects basketballs. Inglish is quick to point to his team, claiming to just be the “guy with the vision” and saying that they are the ones that really make things happen at the Utah Transit Authority (UTA).

On the other hand Inglish is as impassioned and enthralling as the Southern revivalist spouting sermon in a roadside tent when he discusses transit. It’s hard not to want to just sit back and listen to him explain to you why transit is good for not only his city and state, but for the rest of the country as well.

I’ve been on a few interviews where I didn’t have to ask many questions as the interview subject just starts talking and pretty much covers the bases after being asked to talk about his or her transit system. With Inglish, I didn’t even have a chance to get my notes out until halfway through the interview.

“You need to know my history a little bit, why I have such a zeal for this,” Inglish says with a smile. Zeal is an understatement for this man who has represented transit at its highest levels as a member of both the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) executive board and the International Association of Public Transport’s (UITP) policy board.

“Many years ago my ardor for this was honed by a Carnegie Mellon fellowship I had way back in ’77,” Inglish explains. With a Carnegie Mellon fellowship the student spends a few weeks in the United States before touring Europe’s transit systems. It was in Europe that Inglish saw the light when it came to transit.

“It was clear that we had missed something in the evolution of transportation in the United States,” Inglish says. “We had sort of left our transit behind and put everything in highways, and as a planner I could see that. I could see that with our traffic projections we were never going to be able to accommodate them with highways alone.

“That’s when I got excited about transit.”

That excitement has turned into a 30-year career with the UTA, almost an aberration in today’s day and age, especially for someone in such a high-ranking position as Inglish’s.

“In 1970 I was a young, just graduated civil engineer and went to work for the highway department. I’d worked Sundays for them and decided to become a real highway engineer,” Inglish says. “I spent a couple of years going through their training programs and things like that.

“I ended up in the transportation planning department right at the time when the federal government decided that highway departments couldn’t be trusted to plan highways anymore. It was sort of the environmental movement finally getting heard.”

With the trend of planning moving away from highway departments toward the newly created metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), Inglish went where the work took him. Inglish admits the MPO started with a very, very small staff that was just trying to decide what it needed to do first.

“One of the first jobs, and remember this was the 70s and transit was all of the sudden being recognized as the piece of the pie we had let go and now we were realizing that there was a significant part of our American public that was disenfranchised because it couldn’t drive a car, old people, young people, disabled people. And so what are we going to do about it?

“Well we’re going to have to resurrect transit.”

In Utah this meant deciding what could be done with a quarter-cent sales tax. Inglish set to work with a couple other people and they just gave it their best shot, “We said, we’d do this, we’d do that, it generates this much money, we’d run lines here, there and everywhere. We’d consolidate the old lines, buy them out and get rid of them.”

Their plan was to create a regional transit authority (RTA), which would oversee transit for the three counties covered by their MPO. As they spent the time figuring all of this out, the state legislature was busy passing the sales tax and putting it up for referendum. Now Inglish and the others at the MPO had another problem, they had to go out and show people what could be done with the sales tax if it passed. And pass it did. Within six years Inglish had seen transit go from an afterthought to a full-blown resurrection.

Leaving the MPO, he went to work as the director of transit development for the UTA, a move that at the time he may have regretted.

“We went through horrendous growing pains. Broken down buses. We did everything wrong,” Inglish laughs.

“But by 1979 or so we had figured it out, learned the hard way. And we built this facility. We built others. We understood preventive maintenance and things like that.

“And we got it together and by the mid-‘80s we won the APTA system of the year award. Ridership was growing dramatically. And in the mid-‘80s we said OK now we’ve got time to think about something else, let’s start thinking about commuter rail. We did the first joint highway/transit environmental statement of a major transportation corridor in the nation and it became the model for ICE-TEA and later federal legislation.”

Inglish stayed on with UTA through the whole process, eventually becoming director of both bus operations and later light rail operations as the light rail system emerged in Salt Lake City, before becoming assistant general manager and general manager 10 years ago when the previous general manager stepped down.

“And I’ve been here from the beginning, I haven’t left. They can’t get rid of me. They’ve called me a lot of names, but they haven’t gotten rid of me,” Inglish says with a smile.

From Bus to Rail
UTA will open the first of its planned bus rapid transit (BRT) routes in April, featuring longer buses with three doors and placing them where they will get the most use.

“This is basically taking an existing curb lane of a massive arterial almost and putting … it’s a very heavily used bus corridor where we’ve had buses for years and years and years carrying a lot of people stop by stop by stop.

“[Now] it’s expressing from stop to stop to stop. We’ve speeded up the boarding with the triple doors. Just some of those basic BRT principles.”

Inglish notes that this BRT line is part of an agreement with the Department of Transportation (DOT) that should the line be successful and volumes increase sufficiently, UTA could switch it to street-running rail down the road. In fact, any future work done on the corridor would take into account that it could eventually be converted to rail.

Inglish believes that street-running rail is the next step of transit development in the United States. Why? He feels it’s because we’re missing the link between local and regional rail systems.

“Really, light rail in the United States tends to work more like a regional rail system would work in Europe. The next level if you go into any of the major European cities, the Munichs, the Helsinkis and anywhere you want to go, the next set of linkages are streetcars,” Inglish says.

“[They would be] street running, but longer spacing on the stops [with] smart shelters telling you when the next [vehicle] is going to come, electronic information signs and all of that. Much greater capacity on the vehicles for rush hour, sometimes even in trained cars.”

Streetcars in this format is something we have little of in the United States currently Inglish feels, but also says we used to have a lot of it and, in fact, wonders if some of the light rail lines in use today wouldn’t be better suited as streetcars due to being too heavy for the corridor they are in. As with all things, the idea of streetcars versus light rail comes down to one thing: cost.

“It’s all the work you have to do,” Inglish says.

“I mean a light rail line is going to cost you $30 to $40 million on the bottom end for street development because you’re building to a 55 to 60 mph standard, but you’re never going to go that fast in a street operation. Whereas a standard streetcar operation is going to be $10 to $20 million — I mean Portland’s was $10 million a mile.

“You’re basically putting tracks in the middle of the street. You’re not grade separating anything. It’s signal prioritization and some stops. You’re in business and the cars are not designed and built to go as fast as light rail vehicles. It’s really a next level down and the next level after that is buses.”

TRAX Success
The last time Mass Transit magazine visited John Inglish and the UTA, its TRAX light rail line was just starting out. Now it is a qualified success. The story of how TRAX comes together goes a lot further back than that, though.

“Railroads are interesting,” Inglish chuckles as he talks about how TRAX got its start. “We had some expert consultants who could explain to us the railroad business.”

Inglish explained to me that freight railroads are moving more and more into interstate operations. Small intercity switch lines, like the one UTA wanted to purchase to start TRAX, aren’t really efficient for a large railroad company like Union Pacific. It’s cheaper and more efficient to have a short-line operator come in and operate that sort of line. This knowledge is important Inglish says when working with the freight rail companies.

“To work with them the condition that becomes really important I believe is that you understand their business. Because if there is no clear understanding of why they are in business, what they do and how they operate, you’re not going to reach an agreement because you are going to keep insisting that you want to do something that just does not work with their business plan,” Inglish says.

“And so we spent about two years on what I call Railroading 101, 102, 201 on through until we understood railroads with them. And they were patient with us, and they worked with us and we had a lot of meetings.

“And then one day we got invited to Omaha so we knew we were going to have some serious conversations. And we ultimately bought that railroad right of way with the condition that we would operate between midnight and five in the morning the freight service using a short-line operator.”

From that deal TRAX was given birth and it continues today as a success not only as a light rail transit service, but also as a freight line. According to Inglish, about 50 to 60 percent of the line is in operation every weeknight as a freight service with a short-line operator and the situation is working out well for everyone.

“I think the customers are even happier with that arrangement,” says Inglish.

“They get a freight car brought in one night, they unload it during the day and the short-line operator drags the car out the next night. So it doesn’t interfere with what they do and it doesn’t interfere with what we do.

It’s this successful understanding of the freight process and line use as an overnight freight service that allowed UTA to go back to Union Pacific when it needed to make its next step into rail — commuter rail.

Front Runner
I had a chance to ride on UTA’s new commuter rail service, Front Runner, while visiting the agency in December. The line was still being tested, so we couldn’t ride the entire length of it and couldn’t reach top speed at any point, but it was still a great trip. This line, much like its light rail predecessor TRAX, came about as a result of a deal between UTA and Union Pacific, this time not for a defunct line, but for unused right of way along the I-15 corridor.

This freeway corridor operating north and south from Salt Lake City is one of the busiest in Utah. The rail line operating in that area was too heavily used to allow mix commuter passenger service on it, but there was this little matter of a spare 20 feet of right of way adjacent to the freeway corridor.

That they could deal over.

“So we went to the state, we got some help from the state in terms of right of way. We got some help from the railroad. And we were able to put together a corridor through there that took advantage of the already existing grade separations,” Inglish says.

“In fact, we made some significant improvements to grade separations and track alignments. And the net effect was everybody is happy. The railroad — in fact we solved a major problem for the railroad in what’s called Grant’s Tower where the railroad had a big curve it had to operate through very, very slowly. And to avoid that curve they were doing other things that were not making neighborhoods happy, driving trains through areas they hadn’t been before.

“We were able to put our money with their money with the city’s money and the state’s money and solve that problem. It was a $40-million realignment, and the railroad only had to put a small share of that in. [We] solved the problem for them and solved problems for us and for everybody else. So a lot of that has been going on as we work with the railroad.”

Inglish says that Union Pacific has been very good to work with, especially when it comes to safety, “As long as we show the right respect for safety in construction in the corridor and for their operation, they have been very good to work with. They have allowed us to work in longer sections that might not normally been allowed and that has allowed the project to move along faster and more efficiently.”

The next issue after obtaining the right of way, laying the tracks and getting the equipment in place was who would run the system. There are a lot of options as to who can man your commuter rail line, and Inglish says they listened to them all.

“We started with an open book. We said there is a range of ways to do it: 1) You can hire somebody to do the whole thing. Just say here it is. There and there. You come and operate it. There are a lot of myths about it taking two years to train the operators. It takes all of this technical expertise, this, that and the other to run trains. To run commuter rail trains as opposed to light rail. As we got into that we found out a lot of those things are myths.

In fact, upon speaking with a couple of the engineers and supervisors while riding on board Front Runner, I found out that they could train someone to drive the train in less than six months.

“Especially where, you know we’re not driving trains all over the western United States or something like that,” says Inglish, “We’re driving in a very clearly defined corridor from Point A to Point B, back and forth all day long.

“The signalization issues are important, but we have at-grade crossings on the TRAX line and we manage those just fine. And so you know the understanding of FRA rules and regulations. We already have FRA oversight on all of our safety aspects of our TRAX operation.”

The more they looked at it, the more Inglish and his team felt they could run the system themselves. They spent days discussing the matter with panels of representatives from Amtrak, other railroad operators and contract operators. Inglish says they discussed the pros and cons of doing it themselves and came up with the only other alternative being a design-build-operate-maintain model (DBOM) with a contractor such as Bombardier, but in the end they decided to keep the operations in-house.

“Finally what it came down to was we think we can do this, we think we can do this more efficiently, our operators, our labor union wants to be a part of this, it’s sort of a morale issue, let’s set it up and do it ourselves,” Inglish says.

“The only thing we contract out is heavy diesel maintenance — diesel locomotive maintenance. That’s the only thing.”

Infrastructure Crisis
If you ask John Inglish what his job at UTA is, he will likely say he brings the vision and his team puts it into action. Inglish is a visionary in every definition of that word. He sits on high-level committees within both APTA and UITP and is looked upon by his peers with respect for his knowledge of not just the transit industry, but the vision of where the transit industry has been, where it is and where it should be going.

If you ask him the problem with today’s transit industry and in a word his response will be infrastructure. Inglish pointed out to me that European transit systems aren’t as different from ours as one might think. As he puts it, they have their problems, too. They have and are having parking problems and ridership problems (both too low and too high). But the one thing Europe does have over the United States is infrastructure — a basic infrastructure sorely underdeveloped in our transit industry and in the UTA.

“I think this seven-year build out will get us pretty close to having the basic infrastructure [in the UTA system],” Inglish says.

“And that’s where the streetcar networks and things like that begin to come in. Now we’ve got to do a better job with BRT. You know I think it ought to be a national policy that highway departments must grant to transit authorities traffic signal prioritization wherever they ask for it. I think that ought to be just part of the national policy.

“And so we’ve got to make the bus friendlier, more user-friendly, better. We’ve got to develop a new transportation infrastructure financing program. Get rid of gas taxes and all of that.

“We’ve got to get rid of all of that and we’ve got to start thinking about it as one whole transportation system. A network and that includes freight.”
Inglish says the freight companies are the ones caught up the worst in the congestion plaguing our highways.

“They’re out there competing with single-occupancy vehicles on the freeway with a triple-trailer rig of millions of dollars of merchandise trying to get to a distribution center for Wal-Mart somewhere.

“This is getting to be a real interesting set of economics. Who is the most important for us to be on the road, the truck full of the goods that we need to keep the economy moving or the single-occupancy guy who just can’t seem to find it in his heart to use public transit or some other way of getting to work? Now he doesn’t use another way because it isn’t very good. We have to make it better and better and better.”

So what about America’s so-called love affair with the car? That’s always touted as a defining reason why transit won’t work in the United States. Inglish instead thinks that the U.S. consumer has a love affair instead with really good transportation.

“We’re spoiled,” Inglish says.

“And if you can create really good transportation with transit, people will use it. What’s the difference? In fact, in some ways it can be a lot better.”
Inglish feels that as a nation it is clear what the United States needs the most — rail — a high-speed rail network to be specific. And he says it is high time for that change.

“The whole nation’s economic history is defined in 50-year increments by transportation, audacious transportation infrastructure investment. From the interstate highway going back to the transcontinental railroad, going back to the canal systems, you can just see it. It’s time for an audacious national transportation infrastructure program. And I personally think it’s the development and laying out of a high-speed rail network in the United States.

“It’s overdue in my book. It’s way overdue.”

Change isn’t easy to come by. People resist change, especially in the public transit industry where game-changing projects often require new or increased taxes and years to come to fruition. It’s hard to get someone to believe in a project they won’t be able to ride on for years. So what incites this change? According to Inglish it’s crisis that motivates change, not good ideas. So is the U.S. transit system in crisis?

“I think we are. I think we are in our air system. I think we are in our freight systems. I think we are in a bigger crisis than anyone would like to admit,” Inglish says with enthusiasm.

So what is broken? According to Inglish, everything. Inglish points to all aspects of the transit infrastructure: ports, highways, rail, airlines. Everyone is in need of capacity and doesn’t have it. In fact, they are all fighting each other for capacity, each scrambling to get a bigger piece of the pie.

“Every professional that I associate with is starting to say this is a system that is broken and is long overdue for a major, major overhaul,” Inglish says.
“Congress, bless their heart, they throw some more money at it every year. We pat ourselves on the back and say, wow we got more money this year than we did last time. This needs a complete overhaul. Throwing a little more money at existing programs that are already now flawed is not the answer.”

Inglish is pragmatic about the situation, though. He doesn’t feel that you can overhaul the entire system in one fell swoop. As with everything on this level, it will take politics, which means lots of talking and waiting.

“At some point, somebody at a very, very high level has to recognize that it’s a problem and take it on as a national priority, and I think it is getting pretty close to that, but not in this next round because that champion hasn’t come forward yet.

But what about the I-35 bridge collapse near Minneapolis/St. Paul? Was that the crisis needed to send a wake-up call to get the public demanding change?

“Well it didn’t hurt,” Inglish says.

“I mean I hate to say it, but those are all over the nation. We are trillions of dollars behind in infrastructure investment. I mean maintenance! Forget about the new stuff we need.

“It’s outrageous. It’s wrong that we allowed it to get to this point.”