SALT LAKE CITY — If you ride mass transit regularly, you typically won't notice any problems unless you're affected directly — that is, your bus or train is running more than a few minutes off schedule.
But it takes a great deal of planning for issues big and small by the Utah Transit Authority to keep the trains (and buses) running on time.
Last month, morning commuters on UTA's TRAX light rail system experienced major delays due to an equipment issue that affected travel on all three lines, making some riders over an hour late. Among the riders impacted that Jan. 17 morning was Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who was making his daily commute to his full-time job as director of the Utah Office of Health Care Statistics.
Since FrontRunner launched its south extension to Provo in 2012, he has used the commuter rail line and the TRAX Green Line to get back and forth to work at his agency's offices near West North Temple, he said. And while this most recent disruption caused him to be about 45 minutes late, he said the system usually is very reliable.
"As a general rule, things run on time or within an acceptable tolerance," he said. "Realistically for me, if I make the connection, the Green Line is never more than a couple of minutes late."
Thurston noted that over the years, he has experienced delays from time to time, but seldom anything that would cause a significant inconvenience and nothing close to the headache of rush hour traffic on the freeway.
"My typical experience is that delays are uncommon and they are not typically as bad as you would experience in a traffic jam," he said.
Todd Provost, vice president of operations, capital and asset management for UTA, said the agency has spent a great deal of time developing response strategies in the event of virtually any kind of service disruption.
"It depends on the severity of the issue, but we have a service recovery plan that helps (us decide) which approach to take," he said. "We'll even activate our emergency operations center to coordinate (response) activities in (major disruption) scenarios."
He said the agency works 24 hours to keep the system running as smoothly as possible, but there is no way to avoid every circumstance. Delays can be caused by passenger medical issues, people trespassing on agency property or equipment failure — which is what caused the most recent big delay, explained Lucas Ewing, assistant manager of TRAX operations
Provost said the main goal each day is to provide safe service to passengers in a timely fashion on every transit mode they operate.
"We are trying to be the safest we can be," he said. "(We want) to make sure people can rely on us the best that they can."
Across its entire system, UTA monitors and maintains 133 miles of rail track, with a 70-car fleet of commuter rail vehicles, 117 light rail cars, not to mention more than 400 buses, said UTA spokesman Carl Arky. UTA operates in seven counties in northern Utah, serving more than 150,000 passengers boardings weekly, he added.
Provost said the agency operates at an on-time rate of at least 90 percent across each of its service lines. He noted that service disruptions have a greater impact on rail lines than buses because incidents on rail have a compounding effect on trains ahead and behind the affected vehicles.
As for when those major delays to occur, Thurston says UTA does a reasonable job of responding to problems to get passengers to their desired destinations, but there can be issues when it comes to keeping riders abreast of what's happening during the delay.
"I wish they would be better at communicating," he explained. The agency often sends updates through social media platforms like Twitter, which can be effective, however, some information may be left unexplained.
"It's an operational nightmare when (UTA) is dealing with a crisis," he acknowledged. "Resuming operations is not always the top priority."
He said having agency personnel handling the situation armed with as much pertinent information as possible would help mitigate some of the frustration passengers may feel when they are in a middle of a big delay.
FrontRunner General Manager Bruce Cardon said a lot of work has gone into devising contingency plans to ensure the ongoing safe, timely operation of the state's public transit system, including for a worst-case scenario of a major earthquake along the Wasatch Front.
"By preparing for that specifically, we're also able to prepare for a myriad of other types of disruptions or events," he said. Using an increasing scale of one to five, with one being normal operation and five being the most severe interruption, the agency has set response protocols that can be put into action according to the degree of intensity, he said.
"The objective is to minimize the disruption in the system," he said. While significant events are rare, he noted that having plans in place helps the agency mitigate disruptions more expeditiously when something does occur.4 comments on this story
"We try to prepare so the people involved on an incident (vehicle) are safe," Cardon said. He added that the agency has worked to improve communication during incidents so that passengers are informed about how long they may be affected.
Provost said that while there are many things beyond the control of the army of people tasked with making sure the system operates efficiently, the agency does its best to provide dependable, safe service for its riders.
"There is a lot of work that goes into it," he said. "It's a very dynamic system. We're constantly working behind the scenes to make sure (people) are safe and that we have high reliability."