Resilience in urban transport: what have we learned from Super Storm Sandy and the New York City Subway?

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Photo:  Stefan Georgi/Flickr
Back in 2012, a storm surge triggered by Super Storm Sandy caused extensive damage across the New York City (NYC)-New Jersey (NJ) Metropolitan Area, and wreaked havoc on the city’s urban rail system.

As reported by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the subway suffered at least $5 billion worth of damage to stations, tunnels and electrical/signaling systems. The Port Authority Trans-Hudson network (PATH) connecting NYC to NJ was also severely affected, with losses valued at approximately $871 million, including 85 rail cars damaged.

In the face of adversity, various public institutions in charge of urban rail operations are leading the way to repair damaged infrastructure (“fix”), protect assets from future similar disasters (“fortify”), restore services to millions of commuters and rethink the standards for future investments.

NYC and NJ believe that disasters will only become more frequent and intense. Their experience provides some valuable lessons for cities around the world on how to respond to disasters and prepare urban rail systems to cope with a changing climate.

Five years after Sandy, how is New York integrating climate resilience into urban rail design and operations?
Removable subway stairs Flood Control Cover at the Whitehall St. Station. Photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City
The NYC subway network has 14 under river tunnels and other assets that are particularly vulnerable to flooding. Immediately after the storm, both agencies prepared strategies to repair damaged infrastructure and systems, recover essential services, and fortify assets and services.

The MTA created a Climate Adaptation Task Force and received $10.5 billion in emergency relief from the United States Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Approximately half of that amount is being spent on resilience projects, some of which require significant investment: repairing and sealing tunnels, making substation assets more resistant, and elevating critical equipment. Other less costly measures include sealing vents and station doors during a storm, and sealing signal and communication rooms and equipment at vulnerable stations. The photo above shows a flood control cover for subway stations in New York City.

Similarly, PATH developed a flood protection program to redesign and reconstruct critical vulnerable assets in stations, tunnels, rail car maintenance facilities, and surface-level tracks. These include redesigning stations with updated design standards that incorporate projected future sea level rise and the implementation of flood protection barriers.
PATH resiliency measures. Left: Raised electrical/signaling equipment. Right: Flood protection sand barriers. Photos: Ramón Muñoz-Raskin
What can the World Bank and its clients learn from New York’s experience?

A team of World Bank experts recently visited NYC to learn about how MTA and PATH prepared for and responded to Sandy. The team also wanted to understand how these institutions are currently integrating climate resilience in all phases of urban rail development, including design, operations, and maintenance. The lessons learned will feed into a forthcoming World Bank publication that will help decision makers factor climate resilience into urban rail projects. The visit was funded by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

Here are some key findings and recommendations we would like to highlight:
  • Prepare for disaster: time is precious when disasters come. Develop plans and protocols before disaster strikes. Experience has demonstrated that agencies have very limited time to respond to an event. For instance, it is critical to have well-established procedures to move critical equipment to higher ground in the event of flooding.  Planning ahead can make disaster response and recovery more manageable, and reduce damage to critical assets.

  • When planning and designing infrastructure, take into account current as well as future climate risk. Look at climate projections carefully to identify the appropriate technical standards. NYC and NJ are currently installing water-proof signaling and electrical systems to account for future sea level rise and storm surges.

  • Develop vulnerability assessments. It is possible to identify critical assets with high exposure. Ideally, consideration should be given to all stressors that can potentially affect the rail infrastructure: earthquakes, sea level rise, landslides, extreme heat, cold, rainfall, snow fall, etc. Transit agencies should partner with climate science institutions and universities to provide climate modeling and other information essential to developing vulnerability assessments.

  • Prioritize the mission-critical and most vulnerable parts of the system. MTA and PATH understand that they will lose assets when disaster strikes. An agency must decide what they cannot afford to lose and protect it, and focus their limited resources accordingly.  Developing a plan that prioritizes critical infrastructure and systems is essential.

  • Create redundancy in the transport network: When disaster strikes, affected rail services can be temporarily complemented with more services. During Sandy, the MTA replaced rail services with a “Bus Bridge” during the emergency and recovery period that transported millions of people monthly.

  • Consider insuring operational revenues. Insuring income against potential climate and natural disaster risks can protect transit agencies against economic and financial loss. MTA prevented substantial losses by insuring operational revenue against disasters like Sandy. Their insurance protection was funded through “catastrophe bonds” by a private, special-purpose insurer.

  • Modernizing train control, electrical and communication systems enhances climate resilience, but also improves everyday performance and reliability. Systems are typically some of the most critical, vulnerable, and expensive network items. Adaptive measures can be relatively simple, such as replacing exposed cabling with fiber optic or more rugged cabling materials.  Implementing modern train control and signaling systems also reduces vulnerability.

  • Postponing maintenance increases vulnerability. The NYC rail systems suffered from the consequences of decades of deferred maintenance. This led to many structural and service reliability problems that affected the resiliency of the rail network. Regular inspection, maintenance, and a modern asset management system (with a full inventory of assets) are essential for resilience.
Vulnerability assessment of lower Manhattan to Category 1 & 2 Storms and Water Ingress Points.
Source: MTA Climate Adaptation Task Force.


Georges Darido

Lead Urban Transport Specialist, World Bank

Ramon Munoz-Raskin

Program Leader for Infrastructure and Sustainable Development, Western Balkans Region, World Bank

Daniel Pulido

Lead Transport Specialist, Europe and Central Asia Region, The World Bank

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