UTA will take steps to prevent long delays during weather

Amid recent heavy snowstorms, Utah Transit Authority trains faced long and widespread delays — which executives say they are working hard to prevent in the future.

Eddy Cummins, UTA chief operations officer, acknowledged to the agency’s board on Wednesday that “operations struggled significantly last week” and “our customers did experience extensive delays from Saturday, Feb. 1 to Thursday, Feb. 6.”

He said that came as “the operation team dealt with a broken water main, cold temperatures, heavy snowfall, power surge, crossing protection issues and numerous non-UTA related car accidents.”

Executives said they held meetings to discuss the root causes of each delay and problems with communications to customers — and how to prevent or better handle them.

Some causes were unusual. For example, Cummins said road snowplows that dumped salt on rails at crossings caused problems with new “positive train control” (PTC) systems required by the federal government to help ensure that trains do not collide.

“The salt acts as a conductor. It makes the system think that a train is there,” he said. So crossing arms are lowered for the nonexistent train, and other trains are automatically slowed or stopped as they approach the area.

Another serious problem was with switches that froze or were clogged with ice and snow. Cummins said UTA had no problem where it recently installed switch covers — but it needs to install dozens more and is making plans to obtain and install them.

Some heaters for switches also failed to turn on because high drifts blew snow over the sensors that trigger them. Cummins said when workers simply threw some snow on them, they started heating. He said the agency is evaluating how to solve the problem.

Also, Cummins said the agency realizes that communication to riders was often poor and is working to improve that.

It is now stressing to train operators to share as much information as possible. When people “don’t know what the problem is, we assume things are worse than they are,” said Bruce Cardon, commuter rail general manager.

Officials said other plans being developed include sending much of UTA’s administrative staff to stations to act as ambassadors to provide information and guidance during emergencies, and even such things as sending paratransit buses (whose disabled riders often cancel trips in snowstorms) to act as warming stations at train stops.