Enhancing Maturity and Effectiveness of Rail Asset Management Program

Enhancing Maturity and Effectiveness of Rail Asset Management Program Image credit: TAM America

TAM America had the privilege of conducting an interview with Ronnie E. Valdivia, Director of Asset Management, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), and is pleased to share his insights on adopting a hands-on and data-driven approach to build and enhance an asset management program focused on safety and state of good repair. 

Please tell us about your role at the MBTA and your unique background in public and private rail transportation that led you to this role.

As the Director of Asset Management at the MBTA, my primary responsibility is to advance our Asset Management Program to its next level of maturity. My background is rooted in rail maintenance, particularly in signaling, and this diverse experience has uniquely positioned me for my current role.

After graduating with an Electrical Engineering degree in 2009, I found myself in the middle of a recession with limited job opportunities. While many industries were freezing hiring, freight railroads were experiencing a significant turnover due to retirements and looking to fill manager positions with new, bright-eyed engineers. Through a student org I was involved with, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), I connected with a class 1 railroad that was actively recruiting. I attended a workshop where I specifically remember thinking to myself, “Railroads!? Who uses railroads anymore!?”. I was quickly humbled by learning not just about how large the industry was but their vital role in the American supply chain.

I entered the management trainee program for Signal Maintenance where I had the pleasure of working in both the swamp lands of Florida and blizzard like conditions in northern Ohio. Based out of Tallahassee, for about 6 years, I lived the 24/7 lifestyle, managing a specialized team of 13 maintainers and technicians across 600 miles of railroad. Working closely with multigenerational railroaders and military veterans really ingrained in me a deep respect for frontline workers. This wasn’t just a job for them, it was truly part of their lives. My phone calls interrupted family functions, dinners, and even vacations, but they were always there, ready to jump in their trucks. This ethos of commitment is something I carry with me to this day.

Seeking new opportunities, I moved back to my hometown of Hialeah in South Florida and joined the public sector as a Train Control Supervisor for the county’s transit agency. Here, I received my first dose of the day-to-day pressures of supporting passenger service. I mostly worked the midnight shift with primarily new technicians performing heavy, non-revenue hour, maintenance. Juggling the safety and on-the-job training of new folks while adhering to a tight work window was a skill I honed in this role.

As much as I enjoyed serving my hometown community, I wanted to experience a different side of the industry. I shipped myself up to Boston where I joined a railroad signaling company working on the MBTA’s Commuter Rail network. I ran the local commissioning team for the project. This was by far the largest capital project I was ever involved with. I juggled scheduling, test reporting, federal regulatory meetings, and fieldwork. This role was the culmination of my previous experiences, blending maintenance and project management.

Eventually, the demanding project lifestyle and my wife expecting our first child, led me to seek a new opportunity that balanced personal growth with family life. I found my current role at the MBTA, where the leadership valued my extensive rail maintenance experience. The leadership in place had a strong maintenance background, specifically in the military, and was looking to bring in more rail knowledge to the Asset Management group. My expertise in root cause analysis and proactive maintenance strategies aligned perfectly with the goals of the Asset Management group. Now, I am dedicated to sharing my practical experience to enhance the, often academic, field of asset management, striving to bring a practical perspective to our operations and maintenance strategies.

What is the scope of the asset management program at the MBTA? How has the program evolved to reach its current maturity level? What is your vision for the future?

In the 3.5 years I've been in my role, the Asset Management Program at the MBTA has evolved significantly, encompassing much more than just maintenance aspects. From maturing our asset registry to implementing digital work management systems and helping develop an asset-based capital strategy, the program has grown in scope and sophistication.

Our current asset inventory includes over 80,000 records, covering facilities, track, power, signals, bridges/tunnels, and both revenue and non-revenue fleets. This inventory has seen a substantial increase in both quantity and quality, largely due to the efforts of our centralized Asset Management team. Over the past three years, we've secured increased capital funding, allowing us to hire subject matter experts for each asset class, as well as technical analysts and coordinators to support the program. We've also established an internal configuration team to manage data loading, system configuration, and software optimizations for our Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) products. Our team has grown from a handful of people to over 20, with plans to double in the coming years.

A robust inventory enables us to leverage the EAM system beyond merely an asset database. We've digitized a significant portion of our infrastructure team's preventative maintenance inspections and corrective maintenance processes. This digital tool has increased the efficiency of our understaffed field teams and will soon provide enough data for reliability analytics. To support this, our parent department has recently created a Reliability Engineering team.

We’ve also recently integrated our efforts with capital projects to maintain the inventory and ensure efficient handoff of new assets to our maintenance teams. We found it important to insert asset management specifications into our contracts to hold contractors accountable for delivering asset data in our required formats. We’ve rolled this out in a phased approach; First, by including asset data delivery requirements in any new contracts moving forward. This spec language ensures the usage of our template, naming convention, hierarchy, and providing all the attributes we require. Second, we’ve coordinated with all our internal delivery groups on current, in-flight, projects to gauge the possibility of including these requirements as change-orders. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, highlighting the utility of a logical, uniform tracking system for all assets involved in projects. This success has prompted us to consider expanding our capital asset planning team.

My vision for the future includes further expansion of these initiatives. We plan to expand our inventory and work management efforts to include additional asset classes, such as Communications. We're also engaging with our Paratransit colleagues and third-party vendors that maintain our assets. On the Capital side, we aim to integrate more closely with other project types, such as feasibility studies, and further solidify our role to make our capital investments more objective and asset based. This holistic approach will enhance our ability to maintain and improve our extensive infrastructure, ultimately benefiting our riders.

Safety and Reliability have recently gained much significance at the MBTA. How has the Asset Management Department supported these objectives, maintenance management and compliance with regulatory directives?

In 2022, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) conducted a Safety Management Inspection (SMI) of the MBTA, which highlighted several gaps in our work management processes. One directive specifically addressed Asset Management, acknowledging our progress with the EAM system but urging us to expedite our efforts. Our corrective action plan involved accelerating team hiring, developing a comprehensive five-year roadmap, and securing funding to implement these initiatives. Although the directive initially focused on track, we recognized the need to include all asset classes in our roadmap, given the interconnected nature of the system.

After the directives, significant administrative changes and a reorganization occurred, which aligned perfectly with our focus on asset condition and state of good repair (SGR). In response to our General Manager's announcement of a year-long effort to remove all speed restrictions on the transit network, our team is collaborating with the project team to document all work performed, updating the condition scores of our track assets. This effort ensures that our asset data is current and accurate, facilitating better decision-making and maintenance planning.

We have also rolled out enhancements to our EAM system, as outlined in our FTA corrective action plan, to streamline work packaging and assignment. These improvements make the system more user-friendly and efficient, which is crucial for managing the increased workload and maintaining high standards for safety. Once the track work is complete, our enhanced EAM system will enable us to promptly address new issues as they arise, keeping our maintenance work bank at a more manageable level.

What are some strategies you adopted to improve asset management and maintenance?

The usability of the system has been a primary focus over the last few years. Our teams hold workshops where the technicians, forepersons, and maintainers participate. We perform field visits to get the firsthand experience of the end user. This means early wake up calls or late-night shifts, whereby we work around their schedule and not the other way around. We leverage our relationship with our EAM vendor to perform these changes in a timely manner, and soon we’ll be performing some more minor enhancements in-house.

Additionally, we are planning on rolling out an enhanced SGR module in our EAM system. This module will allow us to digitize our Asset Prioritization Framework, where Condition scores and Criticality scores are combined, in a weighted approach, to assign relative risk scores to our assets. The plan is to use this tool for future Capital Needs Assessments and to easily identify priorities for capital investments.

What is your message for transit agencies seeking to leverage data and technology to maximize the value of their assets?

To ensure the successful adoption of digital tools and maximize the value of your assets, it's crucial to address the usability of these systems. If work orders are not being entered properly, the data collected is messy, or the system is simply not being used, I suggest you lace up your boots and go to the field. "Be where the work is" and "boots on the ground" may sound like buzzwords, but they hold significant value in many applications. Our experience has shown that many data issues stem from cumbersome interfaces that field personnel are expected to navigate while performing their duties. By spending time in the field, you can identify these pain points and gather direct feedback from the users themselves.

Ultimately, the goal is to bridge the gap between technology and its end-users, ensuring that the systems in place are intuitive and truly supportive of their daily tasks. Empower your team with tools that simplify their work rather than complicate it. This approach not only improves data integrity but also boosts morale and productivity. Remember, the key to leveraging data and technology effectively lies in understanding and addressing the real-world challenges faced by your workforce. Embrace this mindset, and you'll be well on your way to maximizing the value of your assets, and more importantly, the people who work on and use them.