The Coast News Group
Railroad signals
North County Transit District announced plans to upgrade signaling and monitoring equipment. File photo
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Transit district to upgrade equipment, lacks solid plan for future replacement

DEL MAR — The North County Transit District (NCTD), a public agency, will soon upgrade specific railroad signaling and monitoring equipment for the first time in decades. However, plans for future capital replacement remain uncertain.

NCTD aims to deploy the majority of $33 million of federal, state and local grants over the next several years toward upgrading train and crossing control systems, including signals, switches, gates, bells and lights.

The district also plans to install wireless monitoring and emergency communications equipment in Del Mar and near Miramar, though it hasn’t yet identified funding for this project.

NCTD, governed by North County elected municipal officials, operates rail, bus and shuttle services. The agency’s FY 2020 operating budget weighs in at $117 million. About three-quarters of its operating revenues come from federal, state and local subsidies, the remainder from passenger fares and other generated income.

“A lot of these projects will be the first … we’ve done on the Coaster [a regional commuter] corridor since we purchased it from BNSF.” In 1992, NCTD Executive Director Matthew Tucker told the board of directors at its Nov. 19 meeting, “I’m hoping that the next time we have to deal with this is 15 to 20 years from now.”

“Some of the equipment has been upgraded as part of specific projects,” but this, “Will be the first … corridor-wide approach to signal modernization,” NCTD spokeswoman Kimy Wall told The Coast News.

Regarding plans for the next round of capital replacement, Tucker said “the key is going to be … knowing what the [equipment] vendors are doing,” in terms of fielding new technology. “Then hopefully [we’ll have] enough time to be able to fund it.”

“NCTD has more than $1 billion in unfunded capital needs,” Wall said. “NCTD, like all transit agencies, does not receive sufficient funding to complete all replacement and state-of-good-repair projects along the optimal replacement schedule. Accordingly, NCTD must prioritize capital expenditures.”

However, “NCTD conducts condition assessments and preventive maintenance activities to ensure that all assets can be safely operated within regulatory requirements,” Wall said.

The Coaster’s crossing and train control systems are 71% and 45% obsolete, respectively. The Sprinter line uses 1990s technology, according to Signal Manager Zachary Taylor

“Obsolete does not mean unsafe,” but rather the equipment “Is no longer supported by the manufacturer… they’re no longer creating spare components,” he said. In upgrading systems, NCTD hopes to move “Towards predictive analytics,” using data to forecast “problems before they occur.”

NCTD plans signal upgrades at numerous locations, including nine in the Carlsbad area in 2022 and two in Encinitas and Del Mar in 2023.

Wireless equipment installed near Del Mar and Miramar would complete a systemwide network for monitoring the tracks and communicating with railcars in an emergency.

Del Mar and Miramar are “two critical safety areas where we need more camera visibility,” Tucker said. “Oftentimes at Miramar, if we’re having a significant rain event, we’re having to deploy someone to stand out there.”

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