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Tools for a Smoother Ride: Managing Rail Assets and Leveraging Competition

Public transit maintenance is not often headline news. Yet with high profile closures and disruptions to rail systems in major metropolitan areas like New York, Baltimore, and Washington, the condition of this infrastructure is very much in the public eye. These systems all need major track maintenance overhauls, but the real overhaul needs to be in how agencies conduct their asset management and maintenance programs.

Together, major rail systems in U.S. cities move millions of people every day, and the lack of regular maintenance and upkeep has direct effects on the efficiency of personal mobility and regional economies. While local elected officials and voters time and again approve proposals to raise revenues for new projects, reinvesting in existing systems is too often ignored. But the more maintenance is deferred, the more it will cost to return to a state of good repair in the future, and the less reliable the service will become for riders.

This study examines rail maintenance program needs and practices through dozens of interviews with public and private stakeholders and experts around the country. The consensus was that asset management practices in the United States are inadequate to meet today’s maintenance challenges. The first step that agencies need to take in their efforts to run a consistently well-maintained system is to dramatically improve their transit asset management. While the federal government has stepped in to require transit agencies to pay better attention to maintenance, the industry still lags international best practices.

True plans and processes based on the actual observed condition of the infrastructure—predicatively repairing or replacing them when conditions and timing warrant—is needed. Such an approach requires structural and cultural change, and significantly more initial investment to coordinate data from sensors, monitoring devices, and human observation. Track inspectors and front line workers are the most keenly aware of the long term problems with deferred maintenance, but face legacy work rules and limited budgets to invest in modern asset management systems. Agency leadership and boards prioritize system expansion over the needs to keep the system in a state of good repair.

The paper also explores the use of private contractors for some or all of track maintenance, which is often proposed as a solution to maintenance challenges. Older rail systems in the United States rely almost exclusively on in-house staff to conduct basic infrastructure maintenance and upkeep. But when there are extraordinary needs, they will also contract with private firms for that work. New systems are turning to private contractors for even the most basic of needs.

Once agencies have a firm grasp on asset management, they can consider alternative approaches to rail maintenance, including whether the agency uses in house staff for a particular project or contracts it out to private companies. Contracting out does not necessarily offer a better approach to rail maintenance but, if done carefully, it may create a different set of incentives and accountability than some agencies rely on today. If considering a contracted approach, an agency must act to minimize negative effects on the existing workforce. When contracting, agencies need to carry out a fair and functional procurement process, write an effective contract, and manage it effectively.

There is no single “cure-all” policy or mechanism that will fix all the problems that are resulting in the infrastructure failures and deferred maintenance that plague many U.S. transit systems today. However, agencies must start by creating a culture of maintenance prioritization through effective asset management. The goal must be to go beyond complying with baseline federal rules and put in place state of the art practices in condition-based and life-cycle maintenance. Contracting represents a way for agencies to test alternative methods, but they need to publicly track, test, and benchmark the alternative approaches for transparency and accountability, which in turn also aid in garnering and maintaining public trust.

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