Experts present transportation ideas


Private companies and government agencies plan to meet future transportation needs with high-speed rail lines, highway improvements and general reorganization, said experts at the "Chief Executive Viewpoints" seminar series sponsored by the Center for Transportation Studies.

Amtrak is now engaged in a high-speed rail project scheduled for completion in August 1999 which includes infrastructure improvements, electrification, and new equipment and facilities, said Thomas Downs, Amtrak's chairman, president and CEO. As part of that project, the company is rebuilding the 160-year-old Boston-to-New Haven route at the rate of one mile a day to eventually create 165 miles of continuous welded rail.

Since there are enough curves between Boston and New York to form eleven complete 360-degree circles, the trains will also have tilt technology so they can lean into the curves, and the cabins will be slightly pressurized to alleviate the discomfort of pressure changes when they go through tunnels, Mr. Downs said.

Ultimately, there will be 18 new trains-"whisper quiet" even when traveling at 125-135 miles an hour, he said-with large windows, work tables, computer jacks and phone jacks. The project also involves new stations and improved reservations, ticketing, baggage handling, food and wine service, etc.

Although other industries such as telecommunications are reinventing themselves, "we haven't even begun to turn ourselves upside down" in the world of public transportation, said Ann Canby, Delaware's secretary of transportation. Until recently, she said, officials have often tackled transportation problems backwards-first deciding what they wanted to do and then justifying the action. To correct that, Delaware has strengthened its planning efforts by identifying three planning categories-growth areas, where officials want to see development occur; management areas, where they want to improve the existing system, and preservation areas, which they want to leave alone.

Delaware also consolidated all highway operations, bringing the turnpike authority into the Department of Transportation (DOT), so all highways are now treated as one road network, and it created a pavement and bridge management program uniting 21 separate databases. Officials created an office of external affairs to communicate with their constituencies, something that is usually "grossly overlooked" by DOTs, Ms. Canby said.

CONTINENTAL REVIVAL

When Gordon Bethune took over as president and CEO of Continental Airlines in February 1994, the company was ranked 10th in measures of customer satisfaction such as on-time arrivals, baggage handling and number of complaints. He set out to change the company's culture, which has been largely focused on negative events, he said. His "Go Forward" business plan included a marketing strategy which refocused efforts on Continental's three hubs (Newark, Cleveland and Houston), resulting in less capacity but improved pricing, and a financial plan which improved the airline's cash balance, credit rating and borrowing ability.

For every month in which Continental rated among the top five airlines in on-time arrivals, the resulting savings (about $65 per person per month) were turned over to employees in separate checks. In a further effort to align employees' interests with those of shareholders and customers, a toll-free number was set up so workers could get a company "snapshot" of stock updates, baggage handling data, etc., at any given moment.

Although Maryland's DOT has a $2 billion annual budget and a reputation for one of the best-maintained transportation systems on the East Coast, government resources are declining even as expectations and needs are increasing, said Parker Williams, administrator for Maryland's State Highway Administration. Technological innovation is the key to accomplishing more with less, he said. Intelligent transportation systems are very important in Maryland because its jurisdiction includes the second most congested area in the country-the Washington/Baltimore grid, a problem that can't be solved merely by more construction.

The state will also be opening new HOV (high-occupancy vehicle, or carpool) lanes, and expects to spend about $50 million in the next several years on sound barriers. Meanwhile, Baltimore is also getting a new international air terminal and access routes, plus an extended light-rail system.

To help pay for these projects, the agency is looking to its real estate holdings, some of which could be profitably transferred to private-sector development. The agency is also leveraging capital by reducing operating expenses and parlaying those savings into new capital through bond issues.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 15, 1997.


Topics: Industry

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