January through July 2016 brought many reasons to celebrate for the Woodward streetcar project. Construction continued at a rapid pace, even as winter gave way to spring. The QLINE moniker – a nod to the naming rights secured by Quicken Loans – was announced on March 24, and the Penske Technical Center was dedicated on May 3, featuring a lineup of business and civic dignitaries. And the team is now turning its attention to the detailed work of implementing procedures, testing, community education, hiring and training operators and maintenance personnel, and bringing the system on line. With the hands-on leadership of Chief Operating Officer (COO), Paul Childs, M-1 RAIL is progressively moving towards completion. Here’s an inside look into construction and a look-a-head to operations implementation.
Q: How would you characterize the past six months?
Childs: Even during the winter months, the project made a lot of progress and much of that is visible progress. On the rail itself, we are about 75 percent complete, and we continue to work on the road bed, track installation and rolling construction in the intersections. We also did a lot of work on the vertical elements of the system, such as stringing wire and lighting. And we have poured the platforms for some of the 20 stations along the route.
On the streetcar build, we have six vehicles in various stages of design and construction. Car number one was about 60 percent complete in June, and others range from just beginning construction to about 41 percent complete. We visited the vehicle builder in June, and it was great to see the progress. Brookville has been a terrific partner and the employees and management team there are really proud to be providing the Detroit streetcars. They bring a lot of expertise to us, as they are also building the streetcars for Dallas, and we share similarities with that project.
At the Penske Technical Center site, we are about 93 percent complete, with the building dedicated and now occupied by the M-1 RAIL staff and the operations/ maintenance contractor. We are working there to finish the car yard, install transformers and equipment and finalize a whole host of “punch list” items in readiness for the arrival of the first cars.
Q: When do you anticipate that?
Childs: Later this year, and it will be exciting for everyone. The cars will be delivered by flatbed truck, so the first trip down Woodward will be on tires, not rails. But it will still be a really visible validation of our progress. Then we begin the testing and validation process.
Q: Talk a little bit about how that will work.
Childs: Well, unlike construction, which is really visible to everyone, the testing and validation process includes doing a lot of work that won’t always be quite so visible. We are required to test and certify every single part of the system, including: the vehicles themselves; the rail; the overhead catenary and charging systems; the cameras and security systems; instrumentation; all of our internal procedures; and much, much more. That also includes certification of all tools, equipment and processes by which each element is tested.
For perspective, here’s just one small example: the procedure for testing the radio communications system is about six pages, and we will test and validate all of the radios. So people will begin to see the cars traveling up and down the line, but without passengers, as we work to assure that every single element works properly. The great news is, this helps to assure that we put in place a system that is safe, secure, and properly functioning when the first passenger gets on board. We are ramping up this area, and are about 25-35 percent complete on documenting processes and getting those approved. It’s a massive part of the overall project, but we have a great team working on it.
Q: Is there a way to make sure everyone knows how the system will work?
Childs: Yes, one of the key things we’re working on is a major community education program. This is the first time in in decades that streetcars will again be on Woodward Avenue, and we will all need to learn how to share the road. There are changes coming to the City ordinances regarding ticketing and towing so that passenger vehicles and delivery trucks can’t block the rail lines. And with the growth in the cycling community in Detroit, we also want to assure bicycle safety. So there is a lot underway to help educate the community, the businesses along the corridor, and our future riders on how it will all work together.
Q: Any concerns?
Childs: Nothing major – just continuing to press on our schedules and we’ve been fortunate with great weather so far. We continue to put our highest priority on safety, and our record remains stellar in comparison to national averages for similar construction projects. We’ve had only two OSHA incidents – both minor – since the start of construction.
Q: Reports indicate that this project continues to be unique in the numbers of local hires vis-a-vis other transport projects.
Childs: It’s true and we are proud of it. We also have 12 summer interns joining us this year, including some who will be working in technical areas for the first time.
I believe the project is also unique in the partnership we have with community and business organizations along the line. We have an active dialogue to help resolve issues and concerns, especially regarding construction impact. For example, from March to June alone, we met with 12 different community organizations, attended by more than 700 people. The conversations range from updates on construction and detours to how to help mitigate impact on businesses. These meetings and discussions have contributed to our ability to resolve issues quickly. Our resolution rate is more than 80 percent, and that’s tremendous in the face of so much activity along the entire Woodward corridor.
The coordination needed throughout construction of the streetcar is really a big dance… with pedestrians, cyclists, traffic flow, bus stops, business driveways and intersections. It’s quite the tango on certain days… but we dance very well with all of our partners. As we’ve mentioned before, those partners include the City of Detroit, DTE, MDOT and others. And the proof of how well those partnerships have gone is in the project construction numbers.
We still have a lot to do, but we certainly have the lion’s share of construction behind us. That’s in no small part due to the extraordinary cooperation from everyone.