Fiber Optic Upgrades Largely to Blame for Extensive Rapid Transit Service Interruptions in 2022

Shuttle bus replacements not going anywhere as RTA continues work on aging rail infrastructure

click to enlarge Fiber Optic Upgrades Largely to Blame for Extensive Rapid Transit Service Interruptions in 2022 (2)
Sam Allard / Scene

By the end of August, portions of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) rapid transit lines had been out of service and replaced with shuttle buses for 46 days in 2022. The service interruptions were due to a variety of track repairs, planned capital improvements and preventative maintenance projects.

But the most significant service interruptions, including a 14-day stretch in August when the Red Line was out of service from West Park Station to the Airport, were due to contract work on a $5.8 million effort to replace the Red Line fiber optic communication system.

Two service interruptions in June affecting eastern portions of the Red Line — one from June 12 through 18 and another the following week, from June 19 through June 25 —  occurred for the same reason.

While a contractor, U.S. Utility, worked on the fiber optic network, RTA took the opportunity to perform track work and preventative maintenance, including a laundry list of needs at the Brook Park rail yard in August.

In June, RTA replaced 392 rail ties and 205 rail ties, respectively, during the consecutive outages. Workers also painted over graffiti and cleared overgrown vegetation along the shutdown areas. 

RTA provided a series of documents related to its track work in response to an August public records request from Scene. (The 14-day service interruption on the Red Line, and concerns from riders about the recurrence of the shuttle bus replacements, prompted our request.)

Responding to a series of questions related to the documents, RTA spokesman Robert Fleig said the track work in 2022 was "no less or more" than track work conducted in previous years. The projects, and the corresponding service interruptions on the Red, Blue and Green lines, vary from year to year, he said. 

In addition to the "Red Line Fiber Project," the majority of the repairs were planned upgrades as described in the GCRTA Capital Budget and State of Good Repair plan. Significant work was completed on the overhead catenary system, which provides electric power to the Rapid trains. Spot track work, switch repair work, signal work, substation projects, tree pruning and trash cleanup occurred as needed during longer closures.

During two consecutive weekend outages on the western half of the Red Line in May, while U.S. Utility worked on the fiber project, RTA removed and replaced a "vital catenary structure" at the W. 65th Street Platform, which  supports traction power cables that supply power to the Red Line's western route.

When asked if the frequency and length of the service interruptions would increase as the rail infrastructure aged, Fleig said it was difficult to say.

"GCRTA implements a continued program of upgrades and repairs each year to maintain our rail infrastructure," he wrote in an email. "The long-term solution is a continued program for track, signal, line, and substation upgrades. All of which is what GCRTA is doing."

According to the RTA's weekly data, ridership was largely unaffected by the recurring service interruptions. (The gray bars in the chart below indicate weeks when shutdowns occurred for two or more consecutive days.)

Fiber Optic Upgrades Largely to Blame for Extensive Rapid Transit Service Interruptions in 2022 (4)
Courtesy RTA

The majority of the planned projects for 2022 have already been completed, but a schedule of fixed route outages provided by RTA  indicates four additional weekend days of shuttle bus replacement on the Blue and Green lines, from Tower City to their eastern terminuses.)

Fleig provided advance notice that a long-term service interruption, lasting roughly six weeks, has been planned for the Blue and Green lines during July and August of 2023.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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