Will LA Metro Be Ready To Take The Heat Of Climate Change? It's 'Complicated'

(Courtesy Steve Hymon/Metro)

ACROSS THE PLANET, HUNDREDS OF NEWS ORGANIZATIONS — INCLUDING THIS ONE — ARE SPENDING A WEEK FOCUSING ON ALL THINGS CLIMATE CHANGE. THE GLOBAL COLLABORATION IS CALLED COVERING CLIMATE NOW, AND THIS STORY IS PART OF IT. YOU ARE ALSO PART OF IT. USE THE FORM BELOW TO TELL US WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND, OR IF THERE'S SOMETHING YOU'D LIKE TO KNOW.


As global temperatures rise, Southern Californians will be faced with new realities to complicate our postcard-perfect weather. Summerlong heat waves could become the new normal throughout the region, according to scientists — and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority is taking notice.

"Extreme heat is the most pervasive risk that Metro faces," according to agency officials, who've outlined several hazards extreme heat could pose to the transit system, Metro employees and riders.

Mechanical equipment like station elevators and signal switches could be pushed to their limit and fail. The sun could literally warp train tracks and cause a derailment. Air conditioning won't provide enough relief for passengers. And many bus stops in the region lack shade, which increases heat-related health risks to waiting riders.

So, what is Metro doing to address all this?

When Metro's Inspector General Karen Gorman recently heard a board member express doubt that the agency was ready for the impacts of climate change, she wanted to get to the bottom of it.

She told members of Metro's Executive Management Committee at their meeting in July, "when I hear you say something that's a good question that should be answered, then I decide to answer it."

However, "the answer is complicated," she said, before presenting a report on some key vulnerabilities to the transit agency's infrastructure and equipment.

One key point Metro staff wants to get across to its leadership: this is going to be the new normal, and the agency's budget needs to account for the hazards of extreme heat moving forward if it hopes to effectively run a transit system that keeps people moving — and safe.

"After doing multiple interviews within the L.A. Metro system, we've definitely found that we were a lot more prepared than than we had originally thought," said Suzanna Sterling, the author of the IG's report.

It's less complicated for Cris Liban, Metro's executive officer for environment and sustainability, who said both the agency and its infrastructure are ready to handle the effects of climate change.

"We are aware of what the long term effects are, we've already designed for those, we are implementing those wherever we can," he told LAist. "The IG report provides specific tactics to the strategies that we have identified in the climate action adaptation plan."

That plan, released earlier this year, assessed the various climate-related threats that could have an impact on the agency's system, including increased risk of wildfires, heavy rain, flooding, mudslides and sea level rise.

"Some Metro assets are expected to reach extreme or high risk to certain climate hazards by midcentury," the report said. "If not addressed, this could lead to widespread operational disruption, higher operating costs or localized infrastructure damage."

Metro officials said bus and rail lines in downtown L.A. are the most at risk to the hazards extreme heat will bring, "due to their criticality to the overall system."

Using data from Cal-Adapt, a hub for climate research produced by California's scientific and research community, Metro calculated that L.A. County will experience a dramatic increase in extreme heat days by 2050. Extreme heat days are defined as "the number of additional days that exceed the historical 95th percentile threshold," according to Metro's report, and account for temperatures as high as 107 in the study region.

(Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

Based on the available data, much of the L.A. basin will experience 29 to 35 more extreme heat days per year. Some inland areas, including much of the San Gabriel Valley, could see more than 36 to 42 more extreme heat days. A good portion of the San Fernando Valley is projected to experience 43 to 49 more extreme heat days per year. So yeah, summerlong heat waves. Yikes.

THE HEAT IS (ALREADY) ON

Yes, it's expected to get much hotter, but extreme heat is already a challenge for Metro's system and its riders.

When temperatures exceed 90 degrees, the agency increases track inspections and imposes "slow orders," Sterling explained. Train speeds slow down, which means delayed service, more crowded train cars and more uncomfortable conditions for passengers inside those cars.

Extreme heat can cause railroad tracks to buckle, as seen in this July, 1978 photo, in which a passenger car came off the tracks in Asbury Park, New Jersey. (Anonymous/AP)

Slower speeds are a safety precaution, because metal rails expand in high heat, which can cause sections of the track to buckle — known as "sun kinks" — or pull apart at the joints.

Expanding rail can also lead to "cupping," which is when the layer of rocks used to stabilize tracks gets displaced, which could cause movement in the rail ties.

All three of those heat-related scenarios bring an increased risk of train derailment.

It's not just the rails, though. The wires running above to power Metro's light rail lines, the Overhead Catenary System (OCS), are also at risk.

High temperatures cause the wires to stretch and sag, something the current OCS design does not always handle effectively, according to the inspector general report. Too much sagging can cause the trains' pantograph hooks, which collect power from the overhead wires, to get entangled or disconnected from the wires, meaning the trains may not receive enough power, meaning even slower trains.

In a recent rider survey on climate change, nearly half of respondents said they'd experienced delays on the system during days of extreme heat or heavy rain.

Extreme heat's effects on SoCal's energy supply is another concern for Metro.

Maybe you remember how our aging power grid fared during last year's sweltering summer.

When it's hot, more people run their AC for longer, which can create supply issues and strain the equipment that does the supplying.

And Metro relies on the same energy sources as the rest of us, for the most part. Liban said more than 80% of the agency's power comes from Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, but they aim to change that.

"We don't want to be constrained as an organization as [those agencies] struggle and as they work through those challenges," he said, explaining that Metro 's goal is to become more "energy resilient" by investing in solar power, micro grids and other renewable energy sources so public transit can keep moving, even if blackouts become more common (which is very likely in L.A. County, according to researchers).

SUMMER IS HELL ON METRO'S BUS FLEET

(Courtesy Steve Hymon/Metro)

According to Sterling's report, Metro's available bus fleet dips 10% in the summer because of how many buses break down.

From 2014 through 2018, Metro spent $1.6 million per year on average on cooling systems and other summer-related bus parts. Compare that the average of $404,000 spent annually on winter-related components like wiper blades and heating.

Now, imagine how those costs could soar alongside temperatures (that's your tax dollars at work, of course). Liban and Sterling are mindful of that, too. That's why saving for a rainy scorching day is so important.

"Things always cost more when you're reactionary," Sterling said. [We need] to be proactive, and to begin to at least address the elephant in the room now that it's getting hotter."

Shelter from the sun is another area for improvement. In that climate change survey, about 61% of respondents said there was not enough shade at Metro bus stops.

A shadeless bus stop on San Fernando Road in Pacoima. (Meghan McCarty/KPCC)

Liban said that speaks to Metro's work to redesign its bus network for the region's "vulnerable populations," many of whom rely on public transit and will be most affected by climate-related challenges — especially extreme heat.

One complicating factor: Metro does not typically provide bus shelters itself, Liban said. That usually falls to the city that owns the sidewalk where the buses stop, or advertisers who want to give riders a shady spot (or just a bench) to look at a poster for a new TV series or, say, the self-proclaimed number one realtor on the Westside. And in L.A., getting bus shelters with adequate shade built has been a challenge in recent years.

Liban said Metro's climate data will be used to inform design and decision making to reduce the negative effects of climate change on its riders. That could mean more frequent bus service so riders aren't waiting as long, and working with cities to install more bus shelters on their sidewalks. Metro could address some of those issues through its comprehensive NextGen Bus Study, so stay tuned.

WHAT ARE OTHER CITIES DOING?

The OIG report looked at how other cities, both at home and abroad, have adapted to address extreme heat.

One city the report focused on was Las Vegas because "it's close, and it's very hot," Sterling said. Metro officials visited Sin City to better understand how the city's bus system operates in extreme desert heat — the sort of conditions SoCal could be facing in the next few decades.

Sterling highlighted a few of the ways the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada — which does not operate any rail lines — faces extreme heat, including "chill stations" at bus stops, where riders can get free water bottles and tips on how to stay safe.

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The report also notes that the bus fleet in Vegas runs on tires filled with pure nitrogen, which has been been shown to retain air pressure better.

Another U.S. city L.A. Metro studied was Phoenix, where heat records are being broken left and right.

It's one of the "newer metro systems in our nation," Sterling said, explaining that it was important for L.A. Metro to look at the cutting-edge technology the Arizona agency is pushing forward.

That includes additional air conditioning systems on buses and light rail trains, cool air ventilation at rail platforms that waiting riders can control, engine cooling systems for the agency's bus fleet, and solar reflective window tint and paint on its trains.

The IG's office also noted some promising solutions outside of the U.S. Sterling's report highlighted benchmarks in Hong Kong, where regenerative braking technology is used to send power back to rail lines' OCS.

In London and Melbourne, Australia, automated weather stations and rail sensors help transit officials monitor temperatures and conditions on railways in real time. Some smart bus stops in Singapore feature impressive ventilation systems and giant fans to keep passengers cool.



The IG's report concludes with a list of recommendations for Metro to consider as it keeps working to address our changing climate. They include:

  • A spring-based tension system to keep light rail wires from sagging
  • Track sensors and automated weather stations to monitor rail conditions in real-time
  • Creating a "coordinated Severe Weather plan" and "baseline preventative maintenance"
  • Bus shelters with shade canopies, improved ventilation, solar panels and LED lighting
  • Solar reflective paint for trains and buses

Sterling also wrote that "environmental sustainability features should not be dismissed and eliminated as luxury items."

SO WHAT WILL METRO DO ABOUT THIS REPORT?

(Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

That's "to be determined" Sterling said. Other cities have shown that solutions exist, but like most things in life, it comes down to money. Many of the ideas floated in the report carry costs the agency has yet to account for.

During her presentation to the committee in July, Gorman suggested that, until Metro had the money, the agency could buy $10 thermal temperature gauges from The Home Depot and give them to train operators to take readings "until such time as we have track sensors actually installed through the system." Committee members chuckled, but she wasn't joking.

Metro is in the middle of a 90-day process to review and respond to the I.G.'s recommendations.

"I don't know that we expect they're going to go ahead and install everything, but they're very good ideas [we're] putting forward," Sterling said.

Earlier this year, the transit agency committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 79% ("relative to 2017 levels") by 2030 and has the goal of zero emissions by 2050.