Jon McDonald, PE

North America

Jon McDonald is a former vice president and business sector manager for Atkins’ transit and rail practice in North America. He has led the systems development on some of the largest and most advanced transit projects in the world. Jon serves as a board member and chair of the Research and Technology Committee for the American Public Transportation Association.

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As rail accidents continue to make the news, commentators speculate about what caused a particular event and how it could have been avoided. But by focusing on a singular event (or a singular cause) we may be headed in the wrong direction.

While the cause of a specific accident is important to both the industry and those affected, when it comes to future accident prevention, we must take a broader look. To understand, let me take you back to 1931, when a man by the name of HW Heinrich published a book titled “Industrial Accident Prevention.” His studies showed that for every accident that caused a major injury, there were 29 that caused minor injuries, and 300 near misses (the classic safety pyramid). Several others have conducted similar studies with similar results, including a 2003 ConocoPhillips Marine study that showed for every fatality there were at least 300,000 at-risk behaviors.

With this model, we can see that in order to prevent major accidents, we must focus on preventing near misses and changing at-risk behaviors. Every incident matters—including the ones that don’t make the news. In essence, we need to build a culture focused on safety, where safe behaviors as well as safe designs are the norm. The rail industry on the whole, like the airline industry, is safety oriented and generally achieves accident rates hundreds of times lower than automobiles. But with present-day pressures on transit agencies to operate under tighter budgets and increased performance expectations (adopting new, complex technologies, replacing crumbling assets, and developing a new work force as the baby boomer generation retires), maintaining this culture of safety can be challenging.

With this in mind, I believe a focus on the following three points would help the industry move forward and prevent not only the major catastrophes, but address many of the pieces that are putting the entire system at risk:

  1. The importance of Independent Safety Assessors. The first question to ask is “How do we know it’s safe?” Safety is more than just following code. Safety in rail is about designing a safe system, then operating and maintaining it to be safe for both staff and the public. In all aspects of design, operation, and maintenance, we must depend on people with multiple priorities to do the work. From contractors who are focused on the bottom line, to designers who are vested in proving their designs are correct, to operators and maintenance staff who may not be familiar with new designs and equipment—who can you depend on to make sure it’s safe? By hiring an expert Independent Safety Assessor (ISA) whose only goal is to ensure safety, agencies can ensure that the system will be rigorously tested and validated at each stage of development.
  2. The need for a scientific approach in managing assets. To ensure safety, agencies must know exactly what they have, what state it’s in, and what needs to be done next. Let’s not oversimplify—there are thousands of miles of track and rail cars crisscrossing the country, all coordinated by complex signals and systems. In addition, much of America’s existing infrastructure is aging and in desperate need of replacement or repair. It can be a very difficult job to know what to pay attention to at what time to keep everything running smoothly, consistently, and safely. In public agencies, high-profile and public-facing projects tend to get the most attention—similar to profit-making projects in private companies. These situations create the opportunity for popular or profitable projects to take precedence over low-profile (and less glamorous) operational or safety-related projects. A proper asset management approach using scientific methods to evaluate conflicting priorities and limited resources can help organizations solve these problems to ensure the safest, most cost-effective system.
  3. The importance of training. People are any organization’s biggest asset. There is a huge shift taking place in the rail workforce today. One generation is leaving the workforce in large numbers, as the next is struggling to fill their shoes. Decades of hands-on experience and practical knowledge is being lost, just as human error is becoming an increasing factor in several recent incidents. How can we be sure that all those handling safety equipment are qualified and that they follow the correct procedures? Surprisingly, there are few organizations offering training and fewer still offering certification for rail engineers and maintainers. Our training programs must keep pace with demand, and employers must ensure those entrusted with the safety of others meet strict criteria.

Atkins is currently working with several agencies in the US and abroad to help improve safety, asset management, and training.

North America,

A recent article in The Telegraph suggests that a new age in rail may be dawning in the US, noting the upcoming groundbreaking of California’s high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although high-speed rail is certainly a vital development in the US, an American renaissance in rail still faces a number of significant challenges.

Lawmakers, stakeholders, and advocacy groups alike must undertake the daunting task of convincing most Americans to not only forgo their cars for their morning commutes, but also invest billions of precious tax dollars on projects that can take decades to complete. California’s high-speed rail, for instance, will not wrap up until 2030 at best. Amtrak improvements and other high-speed rail systems will not be completed until well after. In that timeframe, America’s population (projected to reach 440 million by 2050) and mobility demands will quickly surpass high-speed rail’s mobility supply.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, by 2040, the top 100 metropolitan areas will grow by nearly 250 percent. America’s current highway, air, and other transportation systems could not possibly accommodate that increase in traffic levels and passenger volumes in the same timeframe. Investing in high-speed rail would cost considerably less than expanding our existing roadway and air networks, and new rail options would help alleviate the inevitable traffic jams and road congestion that will follow intense population growth in urban areas.

Transit agencies also face the additional challenge of a lack of available skilled resources to meet the new demand, especially in rail specialties. Atkins’ new Transit and Rail Design Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is just one of many steps the firm has taken to address the new realities of the US rail industry.

Greater investment in rail is indeed crucial to supporting a better quality of life in US cities over the coming decades, and meeting these challenges will require a change in the way we think about and plan our transportation infrastructure.

North America,

When I started in the rail business in the 1980s, technology consisted of telephone lines, signal control relays, and radios. Railway control was managed between central control and the train operator. Designing and building a rail line could be estimated and scheduled reliably by the foot or mile, because the approach to building railways had not changed much since the first signal system was built by William Robinson in 1872.

Since then, the rail systems industry has introduced a vast amount of new technology, as well as increasingly more complex methods of delivery—such as design-build and public-private partnerships—to help manage risk and lower costs. Meanwhile, communications technologies have transformed the transit environment. Yet rail projects are still planned, defined, and designed in much the same way as when I started. In fact, quite a few projects have roughly the same specifications, terms, and conditions as they did in the 1980s, before the Internet. It is unsurprising, then, that both “problem projects” and project costs have risen dramatically over the past few years.

The difficulty of bringing the rail industry into the 21st century comes not from the quality of engineering or technology that we use but from the philosophy of our approach. Seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes theorized that the best way to study a complex system is to break it apart and study each part thoroughly. Today, we still follow this approach by separating each part of the railway into its respective components and assigning each component to a separate group of specialists to develop individual specifications. The contractor must then “reassemble” the parts, interpret what is missing, and incorporate the desires of operators and the public. Those gaps, differences of opinion, and newly realized needs result in delays and higher project costs.

Frustrated by the Descartes approach, German biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy developed a different approach in the late 1960s, proposing that an organism should be studied in whole as a complete “system” rather than in parts. A system, as defined by Bertalanffy and subsequently the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), is a combination of interacting elements organized to achieve one or more stated purposes. Systems engineering is then an interdisciplinary approach to designing successful systems, using a process that takes into account all components and stakeholders to describe a system’s attributes over their entire life cycle.

When engineers apply a systems approach to rail, the railway is viewed as a single system that delivers passengers to and from their destinations. This system exists within an ecosystem of passengers, cities, regions, and geographies, and may have attributes like “safe, secure, and reliable” because the stakeholders within the ecosystem needed or wanted those system attributes.

INCOSE has developed a systems engineering process flow to help decision-makers determine not only how to design, build, and procure the right thing but also how to design, build, and procure it in the right way. This process supports a full life cycle approach to each project through activities such as:

  • Defining, evaluating, and documenting stakeholder and system requirements up front.
  • Exploring potential solutions—discovering new ideas, solving potential issues, and determining the market’s capacity to deliver exactly what has been specified.
  • Designing the final system based on the agreed-upon goals and needs, building visibility and checks and balances into the process.
  • Verifying and validating the solutions to ensure long-term project success.

Life cycle costs should be considered, not just the initial capital cost of the rail system. For example, statistics show that the initial cost of purchasing a Boeing 737 aircraft represents just 5 percent of its total whole-life cost. Similar issues arise in rail, and designing with life cycle costs in mind can save the agency and the public millions of long-term residual dollars spent.

Systems engineering has had a number of successes, including the London Underground’s Jubilee Line upgrade, which failed on two other attempts to implement communications-based train control. The UK’s West Coast Mainline project was also experiencing difficulty before systems engineering was introduced, and the Mecca Metro in Saudi Arabia was rescued by systems engineering mid-project. In each of these cases, the failure was trying to build an isolated project without considering how it fits within the ecosystem of the public, organization, and existing system.

So when thinking about building a new rail line or extension, it’s important to consider how significantly railways and public transit have changed over the past few decades. The equipment and technology we use have changed, as have our customers’ demands and the overall transit experience.

Systems engineering has been used to deliver high-profile projects successfully, pleasing both the agencies responsible for them and the communities they serve. To succeed in today’s environment, a new approach is vital—one that considers the “system” rather than a sum of individual parts.

North America,