Before the first spike is hammered on any rail or transit project, the owner must secure funding. A condition of federal funding approval, is ensuring that the project and eventual operation meets all safety and security requirements and regulations.
That’s where Lurae Stuart, WSP USA manager for transit and rail system safety and security, and her team are making an impact on U.S. transit and rail projects.
“When the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Transit Administration fund projects, it comes with requirements on how and where that money can be used,” Stuart said. “Safety and security are key parts of those requirements.”
Federal expectations start with the creation of a safety and security management plan that is integrated within a project. Stuart’s team has helped fulfill that obligation for multiple WSP transit and rail projects.
WSP examines project elements that are sometimes overlooked or undervalued at the planning and design stages. Early involvement can prevent redesign delays and reap long-term cost benefits.
“You always want to be proactive, not retroactive,” Stuart said. “WSP is committed to making sure that goal is achieved. The very best scenario is when we are included early in the planning stage.”
Since each project presents its own safety and security issues, Stuart and her team rely on WSP discipline experts for support.
“We tap into other WSP practices to provide specific expertise, and lean on our engineering disciplines to uncover vulnerabilities,” she said. “Whether it’s tunnels, operations or power systems, having WSP’s breadth of expertise at our fingertips is a huge resource for our firm and for our clients.”
“Transit and rail is very safe compared to other modes of land transportation,” Stuart said. “But when things go wrong, it can be very bad.”
With that in mind, WSP starts by identifying anything that could potentially go wrong. Each project presents risks and hazards differently.
For example, a high-speed rail line—where trains can travel 220 miles per hour—will present a different set of outcomes compared to a light rail train that tops out at 55 miles per hour. Each requires different mitigation strategies.
WSP, which is consulting with design teams for the California High-Speed Rail and Texas Bullet projects, provides key data that is shaping how those rail lines will eventually operate.
“California High-Speed Rail involved us early in the conceptual design,” Stuart said. Because of that early involvement, we could advise the client regarding land acquisition, such as proximity to oil wells, which poses environmental concerns. They were able to adjust the track alignment early in the design, eliminating unnecessary costs to acquire additional land down the road.”
Other mitigation strategies included elimination of all at-grade crossings, security access controls, throw fences at overpasses and inspection techniques to keep the tracks clear.
WSP also evaluates potential fire and life safety and security hazards, such as in tunnels where fumes and inadequate ventilation could be hazardous to passengers.
“We are looking for anything that might harm people or negatively impact the system or the environment around the system,” Stuart said.
Positive Train Control
One technology gaining traction on passenger trains is positive train control (PTC), which automatically stops a train when its sensors detect unsafe conditions or speed that could lead to derailment or collision.
“PTC is a big mitigation opportunity, but it can be complicated and expensive,” Stuart said. “It is a system that is less susceptible to human error; and while nothing is totally foolproof, it makes the system safer to operate.
“When looking at the cost of accidents—death, injury, millions of dollars lost in new equipment, reputation loss—versus installing mitigation, the technology and other mitigations start to look like a bargain,” she continued. “We are able to explain those benefits to a client.”
WSP conducts risk assessments of current operations to determine if safety or security measures should be improved.
One recent risk evaluation occurred at the site of a fatal derailment involving a vehicle struck by a commuter train. The accident raised safety concerns about use of a third rail—which conducts electric power for trains—in an at-grade crossing.
“Our role was to assess the risk of having a third rail at grade crossings,” she said. “Is it a hazard that should be addressed, or was it a rare occurrence resulting in acceptable risk?”
The report concluded that the accident was not caused by deficiencies in the operating rail line or the configuration of the third rail.
“Unfortunately, accidents do happen; we can’t design our way out of every possibility,” Stuart said. “But we can reduce the risk. The public deserves to have systems where risks are as minimized as we can make them.”
WSP also assesses the security of existing systems, working with systems such as Metrolink in St. Louis. Recommendations may include security staff modifications, improved security technology, updated operating procedures, and additional training.
“We are holistically looking at all security to make rail and transit systems safer and more secure for the public,” Stuart said.
Stuart and her team stay at the forefront of current safety and security requirements and of regulations and technology advances coming down the tracks—sometimes years in advance—to help clients plan for every possibility.
“I’m passionate about my role and my job, and its importance to the safety and security of people and their families,” Stuart said. “If we want transit and rail to grow as a transportation option in the U.S., we must make it safer so people feel comfortable using it.”
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