When a frozen Cleveland transit system melts down

Passengers wait to board a delayed Green Line train at the Green Road station in Shaker Heights. Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority rail service has melted down in this cold winter. (Kevin Goodman photo)

Passengers wait to board a delayed Green Line train at the Green Road station in Shaker Heights. Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority rail service has melted down multiple times in this frigid winter. (Kevin Goodman photo)

MARCH 4 UPDATE: CLICK HERE to read an official statement from GCRTA GM/CEO Joe Calabrese “We apologize to our customers for significant service delays.”

ALL ABOARD OHIO STATEMENT, March 2: Bad winter weather causes pain from exposure. It exposes poor planning, insufficiently-maintained equipment and infrastructure, and a lack of attention to detail in response to bad weather.

Winter will also indiscriminately claim the overseers of transportation systems as victims, too. Just ask Chicago Mayor Michael Anthony Bilandic whose poor response to the Blizzard of January 1979 caused him to lose the primary election three months later. Or more recently, Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority General Manager Beverly Scott resigned Feb. 10, 2015 after a record-setting snowstorm crippled that city’s transit system.

Neither of those departures fixed, or will fix those cities’ transportation problems. Nor might the departure of top brass at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) after multiple missteps this winter. But even though winter happens every year, it seems that the people who run our transportation systems seem to get caught unprepared by its snow and cold. Yes, we understand that infrastructure is underfunded. Yes, we understand rail cars are old and need to be replaced. And we also understand that quick fixes aren’t going to happen immediately.

But too many mistakes are being repeated for All Aboard Ohio to remain silent and enable an otherwise beloved transit system.

Even when all goes wrong unexpectedly, All Aboard Ohio believes that a little bit of attention to detail and treating passengers with respect and dignity — such as with active communication networks, timely sharing of information, and quickly implemented temporary fixes — will help GCRTA retain customers in the face of adverse weather and service conditions. Some 40,000 weekday customers, or one-fifth of GCRTA’s ridership, depend on its rail system to get to work or school in a timely, relaxing manner each day. This is Cleveland’s highest rail ridership in 27 years.

If GCRTA wants these riders to stay and to encourage others to ride too, we believe GCRTA must address these issues and questions:

  • The Blue/Green Line trains underwent extensive overhauls in 2006 and the Red Line trains were overhauled in the past year, yet trains are breaking down in the annual winter cold. Why?
  • GCRTA officials say they can’t afford to replace its 30-year-old trains because of the $200+ million cost. Since no railcar fleet lasts forever, there had to be a railcar replacement plan established at some point in the past 30 years, correct? If not, why not?
  • What’s the current plan to replace GCRTA’s trains? Is funding being set side? Can they set up financing or leasing programs through railcar manufacturers?
  • Why were trains on all lines breaking down throughout much of February 2015, causing significant delays, with one train having to serve the time slot of the previous two trains which never showed, resulting in extremely overcrowded trains that did show up, only to have those break down too?
  • Why was the following service status shown on riderta.com from shortly after 7 a.m. March 2, 2015, when control over track switches at Tower City Center failed and shut down all rail lines into Downtown Cleveland, until 9 a.m. when the service status was finally updated to show train delays of 45-60 minutes?
From riderta.com more than one hour after Tower City Center station switches lost electrical power (the second time since Feb. 20). Another 40 minutes passed before this status was updated with alerts.

From riderta.com more than one hour after Tower City Center station switches lost electrical power (the second time since Feb. 20). Another 40 minutes passed before this status was updated with alerts.

  • This was not the first time power was lost to the Tower City Center switches this winter, so why was there no emergency back-up plan in place in case it happened again — which it did on March 2? Is there a back-up plan in place now?
  • On a previous loss of power to Tower City track switches (during the afternoon rush hour of Feb. 20), again there were no service advisories posted at riderta.com. In fact, All Aboard Ohio received reports from rail riders who contacted GCRTA staff after 5 p.m. and were the first to inform them of the rail shutdown and 1- to 2-hour delays. Why?
  • Why were hundreds of Blue and Green Line passengers discharged at Shaker Square March 2 without any connecting transportation available for an extended period of time nor any information when it might arrive while they waited in 8-degree windchills? Again, why was there no back-up plan after the Feb. 20 incident?

 

A Red Line train sits disabled after rolling backward without brakes out of the Ohio City station on Feb. 5, 2015. For unknown reasons, train operators weren't using "snow brakes" on trains to keep ice from forming on brake pads. (Ken Prendergast photo)

A Red Line train sits disabled after rolling backward without brakes out of the Ohio City station on Feb. 5, 2015. For unknown reasons, train operators weren’t using “snow brakes” on trains to keep ice from forming on brake pads. (Ken Prendergast photo)

  • Numerous Red Line trains have experienced diminished or inoperable braking power during cold and/or snowy weather this winter, representing a serious safety hazard. Are Red Line train operators using the train’s “snow brake” which is designed to keep gentle pressure and heat on the brake pads so they don’t get iced up during winter operation? If not, why not?
  • On the afternoon of Feb. 14, a Green Line train derailed and jackknifed at the Green Road station in Shaker Heights. No one was hurt. Reportedly, the train hit a roadway crossing maintained by GCRTA within the station grounds where the “flangeways” (a recessed area along and next to the rails through a road crossing — a flange is the extended inside rim of a train’s wheel that keep the train on the rail) were not cleared of compacted snow/ice. So the train’s wheels lifted on top of the ice-packed crossing and derailed. Why didn’t GCRTA maintain this crossing?

All Aboard Ohio wants what GCRTA wants — a safe and reliable public transportation system for Greater Cleveland. But moreso, we want to use this system as an example. Not only is it Ohio’s busiest transit system — it has twice the annual ridership of transit systems in Columbus and Cincinnati. But it is also the only transit system in Ohio that offers rail services, at least until Cincinnati’s streetcar begins service in 2016. We want transit to succeed, improve and expand — all of which requires more funding. However, funders fund success stories.

The reasons why we want transit to succeed are many: to improve citizens’ access to opportunities, promote economic development, sustain a cleaner environment and foster a more livable city. But none of those can be achieved if a transit system fails at its most basic function: getting people to work, school or wherever they want to go in a consistently reliable manner. We want others to believe in transit as much as we do. But GCRTA is making it difficult to demonstrate to its region or the rest of Ohio that public transit can be a transportation mode of choice and is deserving of more financial support. Help us help you.

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1 Comment to "When a frozen Cleveland transit system melts down"

  1. Thank you for riding RTA's Gravatar Thank you for riding RTA
    March 3, 2015 - 8:02 AM | Permalink

    Thank you for your attention to this issue and for pushing beyond the underfunded and cold weather excuses that RTA offers up. Unfortunately it has received little media coverage. All of these shutdowns are major, but it is amazing to me that cleveland.com or Scene has given the ones that have occurred during rush hour little or no coverage. Hopefully you can get some answers, and I look forward to reading the follow-up. BTW, the best line from this article is the last. Also, most riders I talk to have never heard of All Aboard Ohio. These service disruptions are a great opportunity to publicize your organization. Keep up the good work.

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