Station Upgrades

Amtrak received federal funds recently for a nationwide project to improve access to its railroad stations for people with disabilities. For surveyors, this means getting to work on a piece of Americana. 

By Nancy Luse

Brayton Palmer, PLS, commutes to his job using public transportation and is a fan of railroad travel, which makes the work he and other surveyors are doing across the country improving Amtrak stations even more rewarding. Palmer works in the Philadelphia office of Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., the firm hired by Amtrak to provide design work and surveying at 400 stations nationwide. Some of the work has already been completed, but Palmer says, “we anticipate the survey scope of the project to last another three years.”

In March 2011, Amtrak released a project list that included $40 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds that will be used to upgrade and improve accessibility at stations in 40 states. Many of the improvements are designed to make stations compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, including the installation of wheelchair lifts and improvements to platforms, sidewalks, and parking lots, as well as upgrading station buildings and shelters. According to the website, Progressive Railroading, “Amtrak estimates the stimulus funds will help create or retain more than 6,000 jobs within Amtrak, as well as contractors’ and subcontractors’ workforces.”

“It was really a mixed bag” of work locations, Palmer said, from busy urban stations in the northeast to tiny stations in the Midwest, “where the station is the centerpiece of the town and is perhaps the only reason the town exists. The project is like working on a piece of Americana.” The chance to interact with local survey firms on a national effort is also challenging, but rewarding, he said. “You get a good understanding of the land surveying process around the country.”

Jacobs hired six firms to handle the project’s surveying needs, including Olsson Associates in Golden, Colorado, where Mike Yost, PE, is project manager. Olsson used six two-person crews to be part of the design/build team for projects in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. “Mainly it was topo work and determining property lines,” Yost said. That work began in July 2010 and was finished in the fall of 2011, but the company has since been awarded contracts in California, Arizona, Washington, Nevada, and Mexico. “We’ve done, or are under contract to do, 80 sites,” he said.

“Absolutely these projects are important to the company. It’s a big chunk of work,” Yost said. “A lot of our offices are located where there’s bad weather, and it’s always hard to get work in the winter. Here we were able to get jobs in warmer places and work through the winter.”

Safety First

Before the first piece of surveying equipment comes out, there is an emphasis placed on crew safety. “Safety is one of the main goals at Jacobs,” Palmer said, and the company required training in addition to what was mandated by Amtrak. Yost said the crew was tested for possible drug use and had to have ten hours of OSHA training. “We had already done some surveying projects for Union Pacific and Burlington Northern [railroads], so we were ready to roll with the Amtrak project. We could mobilize our crews quickly.”

David Kubiske, PS, PE, of David Arthur Consultants in Dundee, Michigan, also received work through the Jacobs contract. He related how he had attended an Amtrak safety session in Chicago before beginning the project. “It’s a pretty extensive course, 100% of it on safety,” Kubiske said. “They trained us on things as simple as not using a cell phone or having a radio on the job so as not to get distracted. I thought it was very informative that Amtrak does this. It’s critical to the survey crews.”

At the actual job site there’s a safety review first thing every morning, and Amtrak issues color-coded safety vests to reflect the job of the person wearing them, as well as provides an employee that Kubiske likened to a guardian angel to make sure crews are off the tracks when a train comes through. “Trains are moving 90 miles an hour; they don’t stop on a dime; they don’t swerve,” he said.

Safety is, of course, important, but work stoppage when a train comes through eats into work time, Kubiske said. That means planning to do eight hours of work in a day typically results in fewer.

Historic Upgrade

One of the largest projects was the restoration and upgrade of the historic train station in Wilmington, Delaware, at a cost of $27.7 million with $20 million coming from stimulus funds. The work involved Pennoni Associates Inc., an engineering company with 29 offices from New England to Virginia. John Haupt, PLS, associate vice president and manager of surveying in Pennoni’s Newark, Delaware, office—but who worked in Wilmington during the project—supervised the survey work.

“The survey and site design was pretty straightforward,” Haupt said. “We checked the entrances to see if we could eliminate steps and put in ramps. In some areas there were sidewalks with bad spots, as well as curbs where there may have been years of paving that elevated the street. It’s a fairly 
large area around the building so we started out with two-man crews, and that was reduced to two surveyors with a total station and data collector. There was some boundary work as well as surveying underground utilities.”

Haupt said they didn’t run into anything unusual, with the main concern being “a lot of traffic. The trains were coming and going, and there was heavy foot and vehicle traffic” for his crews to contend with. With his office nearby, he said he often dropped in on his lunch hour to see the progress.

A ribbon-cutting for the improved station was held last March when it was renamed for Vice President Joe Biden, a regular passenger during his 36 years in the Senate, commuting between Wilmington and Washington, D.C. It’s estimated he made 7,000 roundtrips during that time. Ironically, on the day of the dedication, the head of Amtrak was on a train that was delayed, and he had to be driven the rest of the way by car to the ceremony.

Haupt continued, “I think it was a worthwhile project. Obviously it did generate work for me and my staff.” He continued, “as time goes by changes have to be made [to make train travel available to those with disabilities]. Amtrak and the government are trying to get more people to use trains, and this is a way for doing that.” Indeed, the latest ridership figures for 2011 showed 30.2 million passengers, a total never before seen in Amtrak’s 40-year history.

Kubiske, who worked with the train projects in Ohio, said he would welcome more jobs of this sort. “We’re very small fish, and this kept several people busy,” he said.

Nancy Luse is a freelance writer based in Frederick, Maryland.

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