Navigating Challenges and Leading Innovation in Rail Transit

Navigating Challenges and Leading Innovation in Rail Transit Image credit: TAM America

TAM America had the privilege of conducting interview with Fred Craig, PE., Chief Operating Officer, Transdev Rail Inc., and is pleased to share his perspectives for the rail transit industry.

Please tell us about your leadership role at the Transdev North America Rail Division and your unique background and expertise that led you to this role.

My experience in the industry is based on the integration of a variety of different roles in project development, project delivery, project finance, operations, and troubleshooting. Most of my career was with major international engineering companies developing projects, many with innovative and ground breaking approaches. It progressed to large P3 projects in the United States. This experience has been included troubleshooting and implementing challenging projects that clients needed. Clients have high expectations, and unfortunately, delivery and operations fall short of their expectations. Innovative delivery, and fixing problem projects has been the majority duty of late. Rebuilding customer confidence and in delivering uniquely structured projects for clients is a full time job now.

What are some of your key projects in the Rail Division portfolio?

The Rail Division manages operations and maintenance contracts for streetcar and commuter rail systems, as well as construction of railroad and rail operations facilities. Transdev installed many positive train control systems when this was first implemented. The company also performs right-of-way clearance and maintenance. When the streetcar market was much more robust a significant effort included project development and streetcar operations, development and project delivery in the Midwest.  Transdev has many of these now under MOW and O&M contracts.

What would you say are some of the main challenges that rail transit agencies in North America face today? How does the Rail Division help overcome these challenges?

The most significant challenge that the industry faces now is the talent pool available to operate and maintain increasingly more complex systems and vehicles. The rate of change of technology is also resulting in the maintenance and operations shortfall of legacy systems that are difficult to maintain.  Parts are no longer available; software is changing and not compatible. Further, supply chain issues create difficulties for long lead time electronic components. Components sourced internationally for vehicle and signal systems are especially problematic.  Transdev has an obsessive focus on safety.  The company had mitigated significant safety issues and COVID related incidents because we are so safety focused.

We anticipate what clients are going to need in the 24 month horizon. This allows us to look at supply chain issues that might affect their long-term goals and helps clients anticipate issues before they become crises.  We make anticipatory purchases that save money by virtue of purchasing or reserving products at today's prices.  Inflation has been a significant consideration on every one of the contracts that we have.

How do you think technology can lower maintenance costs, enhance safety and help bring assets into state of good repair?

We are using technology to do inspections and to anticipate repairs that might be required within the 24 month period. Many of the projects that we are working on for repair maintenance, replacement or capacity enhancements have long term planning and procurement periods. By anticipating these, we help clients with predictive analyses of what they need to be doing beyond the current budget year. We are very focused on safety and at look at equipment and fixed assets for indications of latent defects or repetitive failures that may result in more serious events.

What are the challenges of rail transit agencies/authorities in deploying solutions such as RCM or cloud-based EAM that involve use of emerging technologies? How can these challenges be overcome?

One of the issues with installing emerging technology is that clients become the research laboratory.  Technology that is in a rapid state of development period means that this year's system may be obsolete in a 12 month horizon. Because of new developments and the speed of technology advancement, those who choose to be pioneers often bear the unfortunate price of testing systems.  Finding shortcomings after a significant investment is a risk. The most important thing that we can all do is share our experiences in those forums.  Many smart people in this industry can share ideas and hone in on best practices. It's very clear to me that shared information and experience is a means to efficiency and avoided failures in implementation.

What are examples of some innovative solutions that can help ensure rail projects are delivered within time and under budget?

The innovation around project delivery is a critical function. Industry focus on alternative delivery and accelerated delivery have now become the buzzwords for a lot of the industry. Consideration of best practices and what to avoid are key needs that clients have.  APTA is currently working on updating its project delivery recommendations.  The industry has moved forward considerably in the last decade, but perils await the uninformed. This is an area where sharing experience, good and bad, will aid the industry.

Where the end delivery method can be brought forward into planning is one approach I've used on all of the projects I've worked on. These have all been on time and on budget by “designing out” major problems in permitting, constructability and procurement. Simply put, don’t put a future NEPA permit on the contractor’s critical path. Don’t specify concrete when a worldwide cement shortage exists.

Incorporate the end delivery methodology and the life cycle cost in project development and maintenance planning. “Keeping the end in mind” is a buzzword, but it avoids going down paths with adverse consequences. Often, the quickest way to do something without addressing life cycle benefits can have major future consequences.

What best practices have you observed in the delivery of successful rail modernization and capacity expansion projects?

The best practices that I've seen used are where constructability and life cycle operations and maintenance are brought back to the planning and project development phase. Including environmental clearance in preliminary design of a project is critical. It may easy to design something a certain way, but when the entire project development and operations and maintenance  implications of a particular line of thinking are included, different conclusions can be evaluated, undertaken and considered.

New energy sources are being proposed on projects both using battery power and alternative fuels. This technology is advancing at a rapid rate. It's still not the panacea and the only solution. Going forward period electrification and some forms of fossil fuel usage will continue to be the backbone of these systems. The latent size of the equipment fleets in most clients operations and delivery systems cannot be replaced in the short term. There's a lot of money involved available right now. However, for project development, the size of the vehicle inventory and conventional energy supply is very substantial to replace. Replacing all of this at once would be an extraordinary undertaking and probably not increase capacity much. Transitioning to other systems is as critical as the systems themselves. Capacity enhancements that are tied to alternative fuel delivery will be the way of the future, but this will take some time and considerable thought. Despite the fact that a significant investment is being made in a infrastructure, there are still many opportunities for new and innovative thinking.

What is your message for rail transit agencies/authorities facing huge maintenance backlogs and funding uncertainty post 2026?

The single most important thing to have right now is patience and thoughtfulness as to process. Shortages in material, equipment, and staffing to do the very significant infrastructure, planning and investment are rate constricting constraints. Just because a project is funded, rushing to implement it quickly can often result in poor delivery or in failure to meet performance criterion.

How do we train the next generation of technology-based maintenance people to make sure that they are ready and able to deal with much more complex equipment and systems? Should we be more careful the security of our electronic and vehicle systems in the United States?  Are these systems too vulnerable to cyberattacks? Should more robust firewalls to protect systems from the outside should be as critical a function as systems performance and operability? These are some questions that rail transit agencies need to consider.