How do they do that? Power the trains

Expo Line test train pulling into 23rd Street Station. Photo by Gayle Anderson/Metro

How do they do that? is a series for The Source that explores the technology that helps keep Metro running and passengers and other commuters moving. Some of it applies directly to the trains, buses and freeways and some of it runs in the background — invisible to nearly everyone but essential to mobility in our region.

How do they do that? Power the trains

In politics the third rail is an issue so powerful, politicians do their best to avoid it. In the subway the third rail is a line of track so powerful, patrons make sure they avoid it.

And rightly so, since Metro’s trains run on 800 volts – enough to propel a packed rush-hour train at speeds of up to 70 mph through the Red Line tunnel between Hollywood/Highland and Universal City station.

On subway trains, the third rail is the source of the electrical delivery system. The same power is delivered to light-rail lines such as the Blue, Gold, Green and Expo lines via an overhead catenary system. No petroleum gas for the trains. No CNG (compressed natural gas). Just good old-fashioned electricity.

Where does the electricity come from? Like petroleum gasoline and compressed natural gas, Metro buys it. Electricity can be a product of nuclear, coal, gas, oil, water, wind or solar farm sources. In Metro’s case, the intermediary source is utility companies, including LADWP and Pasadena Water and Power — the same companies that supply power to many of our homes.

Although Metro buys many millions of dollars a year in electricity to power the rail lines, electricity is a whole lot less expensive than petroleum gasoline or even CNG. And CNG, as we’ve said in the past, is much less expensive than petroleum gas.

Like the CNG used to power its bus fleet, the electricity Metro buys is produced in North America, which means it escapes the pricing spikes of petroleum produced by unstable countries. And this, of course, is a good thing, especially right now, with gasoline prices rushing upward.

A Federal Transit Administration chart from 2010. Click to view larger image.

The other benefit to electricity is that Metro’s train lines will become greener as utilities develop more renewable power sources. Subways and light rail already produce fewer greenhouse gases per passenger mile than most cars — and should improve as more wind, solar and geothermal power plants come online.

Also, electricity as a power source is generally quite reliable, both in terms of supply and in terms of subway and light-rail performance. But it does have its weaknesses.

While the third rail on subway track is installed in a protected environment inside the subway tunnel, light rail can be subject to weather. Light-rail cars are linked to the power source via catenary wires installed overhead 12 to 16 feet above ground. (Catenary, for those of you who took and remember physics, is the curve assumed by a cord or chain – or even a spider web — that hangs freely between two fixed points.)

But back to the weather issue. Remember the massive storm of January, 2010 that tipped a tree onto the Gold Line catenary lines in South Pasadena? The line was closed for hours while a bus bridge ferried passengers around the spot where electricity was shut down. South Pasadena is a perfect example of what happens when the power is cut off … although in that case a tree was also blocking the tracks.

Despite occasional stoppages ordered by Mother Nature the catenary system seems to work pretty well. Maybe that’s in part because the system has had more than 100 years of refinement. The first tram with overhead lines was presented by Warner von Siemens (yes, the same company that constructed some Metro Rail cars) at the International Electric Exposition in Paris in 1881. The installation was removed after the event but the light-rail thought persisted. And we’re glad it has.

Art for the Expo Line: Urban Dualities by Samuel Rodriguez

Original design for one of the 20 art panels comprising Urban Dualities at Jefferson/USC Station. Unusual juxtapositions—an arm sticking out of a car window, a man riding a bike and a mythical amphibian-like creature—are intended to capture both literal images seen while traveling on public transit and those inside riders’ daydreaming minds.

Samuel Rodriguez presents images with fragments of building facades, vintage rail cars, human figures, and fictional characters in his artwork for the Expo Line’s Jefferson/USC Station.

Each of the 20 art panels is visually divided by the silhouette of bike frame parts, resembling the layout of a comic book. The artist chose bicycle imagery to emphasize the human-powered modes of transportation alongside the rail line. Each panel is an invitation to engage the mind in a playful fantasy along the route between starting point and destination.  (Here’s a link to more information about Rodriguez’s work for Jefferson/USC Station.)

Hand-glazed ceramic tiles are matched to the artist’s original artwork designs at the mosaic fabricator, Mosaïka Art & Design.

Highly skilled artisans at Mosaïka Art & Design cut each piece of hand-glazed ceramic tile into tiny mosaics and place them into art panels.

Many more photos are posted after the jump…

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How do they do that? Detour buses quickly

How do they do that? is a series for The Source that explores the technology that helps keep Metro running and passengers and other commuters moving. Some of it applies directly to the trains, buses and freeways and some of it runs in the background — invisible to nearly everyone but essential to mobility in our region.

How does Metro detour buses to avoid unplanned traffic snarls?

Unlike yesterday’s advance-planned bus detours around the Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland, adjusting bus routes on the fly to avoid traffic snarls or police activity can be tricky business. Where’s the snarl? What’s the cause? How long is the snarl expected to remain? How do you let the public know the bus stop has been moved one block south because the street where it normally sits is shut down? It’s all part of life for Metro’s bus operations team that plans routes, watches traffic and follows every single bus in operation 24/7.

Is there ever a day when all 2,000 buses run without interruption and on exactly the same routes they are intended? Nope.

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How do they do that? Find the right routes

A call center agent at Metro.

How do they do that? is a series for The Source that explores the technology that helps keep Metro running and passengers and other commuters moving. Some of it applies directly to the trains, buses and freeways and some of it runs in the background — invisible to nearly everyone but essential to mobility in our region.

How do Metro’s call center agents find all the right trip planning answers for 8,000 customers per day?

The men and women of Metro’s call center at 323-GOMETRO (323-466-3876) always seem to have the right answers. The weird thing is that they are using the Metro Trip Planner — the same tool that we use — and coming up with much better routes.

Each day, Metro’s 20 to 55 (depending on the time of day) customer information agents answer about 8,000 calls, plus 200 texts from riders seeking assistance with bus and rail trip planning. The most common question, not surprisingly, is how to get from point A to point B. The second most common: When will the next bus arrive … the same information available on Metro’s Nextrip tool.

Questions are answered in English and Spanish but there also are staff members who speak German, French and Tagolin and the call center is currently working to increase the number of languages spoken to help additional customers.

Monday through Friday the call center is open from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The best times to call are generally midday, since peak question periods generally run 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Text message queries are answered between 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The call center staff is located at Metro Headquarters in downtown Los Angeles but handles calls from all over the region. Not only do they answer questions about Metro’s 183 bus routes and five rail lines, but call center agents provide route, schedule and fare information for approximately 70 transit agencies in and around Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. These include the Big Blue Bus, Foothill Transit, Santa Clarita Transit, Orange County Transit, San Bernardino Omnitrans, Riverside Transit Authority and Simi Valley Transit.

And they do all this in less than 2 minutes and 30 seconds — the average length of each phone call.

How do they find great routes we can’t seem to find on our own? The answer is education, plus a handy tool that lets them override the Trip Planner computer’s answer if they want to try something creative or that integrates a particular customer route request.

Agents also undergo an extensive four- to six-week training period, both in class and on the job. And — not a small thing — they are searching and studying the streets and pathways of L.A. County all day, every day, and in the process learning the easiest and best travel routes. The good news for the rest of us is that they are happy to share.

Art for the Expo Line: The Intimacy of Place by Christofer Dierdorff

Art panel above seating area picturing James Achucarro, a boy from the neighborhood, and Soon Cho, owner of Cho Orchids. The reverse side of the panel shows the back and front of their respective heads.

The Intimacy of Place features a sea of faces representing a broad cultural mix of individuals who live and work in the 23rd Street station area. Taking advantage of the double-sided art panel configuration, Dierdorff populated the station with intimate portraits of fronts and backs of heads. His intent is to comment on the nature of public transportation, where people from many walks of life find themselves in close physical proximity with strangers.

The artwork portrays twelve individuals who were photographed in locations that describe their role within the larger community. A variety of professions are represented, including a hat maker, baker,firefighter and mechanic, among others.

Here’s a link to more information about Dierdorff’s work for 23rd Street Station and more photos are after the jump.

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How do they do that? Close the rail stations at night

Photo by Carl Greenlund/Metro

How do they do that? is a series for The Source that explores the technology and work that helps keep Metro running and passengers and other commuters moving. Some of it applies directly to the trains, buses and freeways and some of it runs in the background — invisible to nearly everyone but essential to mobility in our region.

How does Metro close the rail stations at night?

Each evening while most of us are asleep, Metro security personnel are carefully examining Metro’s 18 subway stations in preparation for the night’s closing.

Just before 12:45 a.m. on weekdays and 1:20 a.m. on weekends, security teams begin sweeping the subway platforms and mezzanines, looking for sleeping passengers as well as unattended packages. Packages are examined to determine potential harmfulness. They are then removed. If sleepers are found after the last train has departed, they are awakened and escorted from the station. If they are not capable of leaving under their own power or if they appear under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the Transit Services Bureau is notified and they can be transported to another location, such as a detoxification facility. If they need medical attention, paramedics will be called.

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How do they do that? Refuel a bus with CNG

How do they do that? is a series for The Source that explores the technology that helps keep Metro running and passengers and other commuters moving. Some of it applies directly to the trains, buses and freeways and some of it runs in the background — invisible to nearly everyone but essential to mobility in our region.

How do they refuel a CNG bus?

You can’t just pull into Costco to fill up a compressed natural gas (CNG) bus. When Metro began shifting its fleet of diesel buses to CNG, special stations had to be constructed at each of Metro’s 11 bus maintenance facilities to refuel Metro’s 2,200 buses that run not on gasoline but on gas.

With the retirement in January, 2011 of Metro’s last diesel bus the conversion was complete, making Metro the first major transit agency in the world to operate only alternative clean-fueled buses. Further, CNG is American produced, meaning that Metro is not dependent on fluctuating and unstable foreign oil supplies.

To refuel, a bus pulls up to a service bay and hooks up to a dispenser that looks something like a gas pump, with a hose and a nozzle that mates to the bus. A service attendant attaches the nozzle that automatically locks on during fueling. The nozzle is connected to a tube that carries the gas from a compressor housed nearby in a sound deadening compartment. The natural gas is compressed to 3,600 pounds per square inch as it is dispensed into the bus using a large electric motor or engine driven compressors.

The fueling system incorporates several safety features to prevent fire or explosion. Smoking is not allowed near the stations and all electrical systems are sealed to prevent sparks. CNG is only flammable if mixed with the correct ratio of air so the fuel in the cylinders in each bus is not explosive. Buses hold roughly from 17,000 standard cubic feet of gas (for a 40-foot bus) to 27,000 (for an articulated bus) and take only a few minutes to fuel.

CNG costs roughly $1.50 per diesel gallon equivalent, including compression and dispensing costs. This is less per gallon than diesel but cost is not the reason for the conversion to CNG. In fact, CNG buses cost about 10 to 15 percent more to operate than standard diesel engine buses, largely because of increased maintenance costs. But the move to clean air vehicles, ordered by Metro’s Board of Directors in 1993, was decided because the health benefits of running a clean-air fleet are immeasurable.

Compared with diesel buses, Metro’s CNG fleet reduces cancer-causing particulate matter by more than 80 percent. And because of the switch from diesel to CNG, Metro avoids emitting nearly 300,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per day.

Art for the Orange Line: A glimpse of Stoney Point Park by Lisa Adams

The artwork honors the area’s rich history of horse-keeping. This galloping horse imagery was recently translated by Perdomo, the artwork fabricator, into a 27-foot long elliptical glass mosaic artwork.

Lisa Adams’ artwork for Chatsworth Station monumentalizes the Northwest San Fernando Valley’s landscape and equestrian lifestyle in the forms of native flowers and galloping horses. The imagery was recently fabricated by teams of artisans who translated Lisa’s original artworks into the durable materials of porcelain enamel steel and glass mosaic.

(Here’s a link to more information about Lisa’s work for Chatsworth Station.)

There are more images of the artwork after the jump. Continue reading

How do they do that? Save money by recycling

Photo by Moria via Flickr

How do they do that? is a series for The Source that explores the technology that helps keep Metro running and passengers and other commuters moving. Some of it applies directly to the trains, buses and freeways and some of it runs in the background — invisible to nearly everyone but essential to mobility in our region.

How does Metro’s resource and energy conservation program save the agency $2 million per year?

In part it’s the little things that add up and Metro is constantly looking for more ways to conserve energy. Setting all of the agency’s multi-function photocopiers to double-sided printing, for example, is expected to save $20,000 annually on paper costs, at the same time it reduces the agency’s waste stream and conserves energy.

Metro also recycles a long list of items. In addition to being helpful to the environment, recycling and reselling can be revenue producing at a time when transit agencies are scrambling to balance budgets. Recycling of cardboard, paper, trash and aluminum cans from all facilities reduces landfill use, as well as landfill and recycling fees for Metro.

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Art for the Orange Line Extension: Western Imaginary by Ken Gonzales-Day

Bags of glass mosaic pieces created at Perdomo, the artwork fabricator, ready to be assembled into the mosaic artwork. All images courtesy the artist.

Ken Gonzales Day’s artwork presents kaleidoscopic views of native manzanita and oak trees, inviting passengers to find shapes and faces hidden within the patterns at Canoga Station for the Orange Line Extension. These images are currently being translated into two 27-foot long elliptical stone and glass mosaic artworks, which will be embedded into the new concrete platforms being added at the Canoga station. (Here’s a link to more information about Ken.)

There are more photos of the artwork being assembled after the jump.

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