A New Approach to Station Maintenance

About seven years ago, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) upgraded its fare collection equipment, which allowed for maintenance workers to change their approach to keeping vending machines in service.

Don Allen, chief engineer for BART, said the new technology allows for data-based maintenance, so machine cores can be overhauled at certain points in their lifecycles as opposed to performing “shade tree” repairs.

The change allowed BART to up its fare availability goal to 99 percent. It’s currently at 99.3 percent.

“It has been a very powerful tool for us to have that information from each machine available in real time,” Allen said about the change.

Changing the approach didn’t create major cost savings for BART, Allen said, but the issue is more than that.

Transit agencies like BART are finding new ways to handle maintenance of its stations and equipment customers use in an effort to keep areas in a state of good repair, improve rider experiences and create an overall improvement of the system.


Technology pushes efficiencies

Jared Smith, associate director of professional services for Decision Lens, said it can be difficult determining how transit agencies tackle maintenance programs, but technology can allow for some outside factors to be mitigated out of the decision process.

Smith said board members for transit agencies can sometimes push prioritization of projects near their own home despite the need for repairs not being as high. Programs can be used to create a list of needs and to show why some projects should take priority in a maintenance plan. Smith said agency officials determine what are top priorities in maintenance programs and after it’s sorted down by software it shows data on why certain projects have more priority.

“Most times we end up alternative plans that will allow for a partial fix of problem A and that will fix a lot of problem B, which allows for [maintenance] programs to be done a lot more practically,” he said. “It’s a more holistic approach based on priorities and a line of sight on the goals to achieve at each station.”

Smith said a lot of agencies put a higher focus on safety and customer experience in determining top maintenance criteria along with sustainability and cost effectiveness. Items like project readiness tend to fall lower on the list of priorities.

“You’ve got a lot of different ways to go about the decision-making process and we want to streamline that decision and this does help them by having something repeatable in all that data,” he said.

Smith said software usage in maintenance planning helps resource optimization because it finds value in investment by looking for a mix between cost and value of a project.

While data allows for better planning of maintenance programs in stations, Smith said it can be a challenge for some agencies starting to use the programs due to the culture change it undergoes with new technology.

“When you bring in a new process it’s a new hurdle,” he said. “But once you see a client jump that hurdle and make that change to using more value-based analytics in their decision making process, that’s when you see great things.”


Undoing the mistakes of the past

A big issue with a lot of maintenance problems agencies are tackling are due to a lack of foresight by planners from yesteryears who failed to spot shortfalls from incomplete designs.

“One of the challenges is that when BART was initially built, our street entrances didn’t have canopies, so a lot of street units were exposed to the elements. Not only weather, but human problems,” Allen said. “So part of what we’ve had to do is see if we can put together a program so we can place canopies and provide better, more secure entrances at our locations.”

The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) has been more aggressive in recent years in addressing the needs of its aging stations and improve customer experience.

Rodrigo Bitar, assistant general manager for transit, infrastructure and engineering for Metro, said a tremendous improvement in its infrastructure in stations along the red line is underway — the oldest in the system — with plans being developed for the second part of the line along with the blue and orange lines.

Lighting has been a big concern for stations. Bitar said Metro looked into design changes and presented options to its ridership committee to craft plans in moving forward with upgrades. Priorities are ridership and age, with emphasis on underground stations.

Metro took additional steps to inform riders about service outages in the system by installing electronic signs, which alert customers about issues before they enter the system along with messaging sent in the event of transit disruption.

“It’s a very interactive way of getting them the most up-to-date information before they enter the system,” said Caroline Laurin, manager of media relations for Metro.

Allen said tackling maintenance has involved modernization efforts being attacked on many different levels, ranging from cosmetic changes and new walkway mats to hardscape improvements. One effort is pigeon abatement at stations, which Allen said means changing how BART approaches the whole problem.

“The past paradigm was to just keep them out, so there were a lot of netting and other solutions that didn’t look good and weren’t that effective or efficient,” he said. “We look into changing the actual features, such as, say I have an I-beam where they want to land, so what we’ll do is put flashing in there and change it to a 45-degree angle so they can’t roost or sit up there.

“Architectural control rather than more rudimentary things tend to be in general, much more attractive.”


Getting riders to their rides

The increase in station maintenance has also led to more aggressive escalator and elevator maintenance and replacement has greatly expanded.

Bitar said some of the escalators in Metro are 30 years old, so an analysis was needed to get them into a state of good repair. The challenge is compounded given Metro has the largest amount of vertical transportation in North America.

“Three years ago, give or take, we were doing five or six at a time,” Bitar said. “Now we’re currently doing 12-13 at a time. The escalators, our riders touch to get into our system and it’s a very sensitive part of our infrastructure, so we need to balance service with scheduled maintenance, so we look at overall customer service and what our target needed to be.”

Bitar said Metro is not only fixing more than a dozen escalators at a time, but it’s also signed a procurement of 128 escalators to replace a lot of the aging infrastructure in its system.

Allen said BART had been under investing in its elevator and escalator repairs, and a 2009 budget cut showed how tough the cut in maintenance was by dropping from 30 technicians to 27 and further straining efforts to repair units in the system.

“Boy, it went to hell pretty quick,” he said about the cut.

Since the cut, Allen said BART has bumped up to 41 mechanics along with investments in data tracking. The agency recently put more emphasis on backshift repairs to allow for more daytime availability of elevators and escalators, especially at high ridership stations.

Allen said one of the biggest issues in tackling the repairs is the availability of technicians to do the work. BART has been working with other large transit agencies in recent years to put together an elevator/escalator worker apprenticeship training program so the agencies can more easily perform its own repairs on equipment with in-house workers as opposed to having to depend on outside repair crews to come in and perform the work, making the push to repair units quicker to coordinate and perform.

“All maintenance staff at BART is part of SEIU, so we don’t have the benefit of being able to go to a trade union and say, ‘Send us some trained journeymen,’” he said. “So we have to compete with the companies that hire the union workers to get those union workers to come work for us and it’s hard to recruit them away.”