Working Past Retirement Age

After decades of duty, the time comes when it is appropriate to make way for a new generation. No, I’m not referring to aging employees working past their prime, although some parallels exist.

At an APTA Bus & Paratransit Conference a few years ago, our host agency CEO amused the attendees with his tale of triumph in renewing his aging bus fleet. He explained that at a city council meeting soon after taking office he threatened to apply for antique plates for his buses because, after all, they qualified. His message resonated and soon the political will was formed to purchase new buses.

Transit fleets, with decades of rough-duty service, are being refreshed at ever-longer intervals, making the old standard of 12 years for buses and 30 or 40 years for rail cars just reference points.

New York City’s MTA subway holds the distinction of operating the oldest fleet in the world. Retirement isn’t coming any time soon. Originally scheduled for replacement after 40 years, these cars will see 53 years of service when they are finally replaced in 2017. The MTA will create 52 positions and spend an additional $8 million each year to keep these cars running.

Mean Distance Between Failure (MDBF) is declining in many systems. Surveys show above all else riders want dependable service. Antique buses and decades-old train cars prone to breakdowns cannot be relied upon to deliver on the promise of on-time service. Aging infrastructure, such as catenary lines and switching and signalling, tend to breakdown more frequently, especially under severe weather conditions like we’ve had in the Northeast the past several winters.

Fortunately, the Obama administration recognizes the vital importance of transit and the state of repair and replacement in our cities’ systems. The federal government is distributing $930 million in grants, including $113 million to the MTA, for public transportation projects and equipment purchases. As a provision of the Jobs Act, $50 billion would be directed toward road, rail and airport projects Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters recently, “If Congress ever gets its act together and passes the Americans Job Act.”

Urban renewal projects commence when properties reach a low point —when strong remedial action is critical to a turnaround and the leadership is there to make it happen. We could actually be at the juncture.