A Conversation with our COO, Paul Childs

In this conversation with Chief Operating Officer Paul Childs, here’s a look at the start-up period for the QLINE since the Grand Opening on May 12.

Q: What’s the most significant part of progress over the past six months?

Childs:  For certain  it was the  start of operations. After the extended  construction  period,  followed by testing, validation, and certification, it was  certainly a welcome sight to everyone to watch the first official rides take place during the Grand Opening and in the weeks that have followed. We need to remember that this streetcar line is unlike any other in the country – a private enterprise operating in a public-right-of-way, and we  are still very much in start-up mode.

Q: Sounds like you have plenty of lessons learned from the start-up phase. Does that surprise you, given all of the previous testing as you worked on certification for the line?

Childs: The good news is, not much surprises us. Even as ridership has been at our anticipated levels, we  also  knew that there would  be a  whole host of things to sort out, from both the human factors side and the technical side. Testing does not include many of the real-world situations with which we are dealing now. For example: during the testing phase, only drivers or the staff members dealing with certification were on the cars. In full operations, there are hundreds of people getting on and off, and each of them brings their own unique experience, knowledge of how to ride or interact with the streetcar, and their own requirements for how they use the QLINE. We’ve been very pleased with the acceptance and excitement, but we continue to work on elements to make the experience better for everyone.

Q: But haven’t there also been some operating issues that don’t have much to do with the riders?

Childs: Yes. We are working with our operating partner, Transdev, to resolve challenges on the hu­man side, and the technical side. The human side includes operators, maintenance, customers and even management. On the technical side, we have  the cars  themselves,  software  communication, traffic flow and lights, and even other construction projects which impact us. We all have things to learn as we continue to ramp up operations, and we need to let our processes and procedures gel a bit and mature. As for the specific things we are working on to smooth out some of our issues include: implementing signal control; when appropriate, bypassing stations where no one is waiting; and skipping the station stop if no passengers signal their desire to disembark. Most im­portantly, we are working on establishing a traveling tempo that results in a reduction in actual wait times, and better communication on what the  actual  wait time will be.

Q: We hear the term “headways” as it applies to the QLINE’s expected travel time. Can you  talk a bit about why- or how- that is different from a “schedule,” which is what most people seem to be familiar with?

Childs: It’s a relatively simple idea, but kind of hard to acclimate to, if people are used to looking at a published schedule – for example, a bus schedule. We typically run a four- or five-car operation – depen­dent upon demand, the hours of the day, and wheth­er there is a special event such as a Tigers game, or a music concert. “Headway” means essentially the distance – or time – between each of the streetcars which are in operation on that day. For example, if you know a car is coming every 15 or every 20 min­utes, you can plan accordingly (and that information is available at the stops, and on the QLINE mobile app). If we don’t maintain the spacing, we could end up with “bunching,” which means two cars or more too close together on one side of the route causing other customers on other platforms to wait even lon­ger. It’s  an important distinction,  but  a critical one. It’s very different from other transit systems with a huge fleet of vehicles, or with dedicated travel lanes. We have neither, so we are working on predictability and sustainability. Each car is multi-millions in costs, so it’s not a viable solution to just “add one more,” as some of our customers have suggested.

Q: So what’s next on the horizon for QLINE operations?

Childs: After safety the most important thing is that the systems (people, process and technology) are all talking to one another, from dispatch all the way through to the customer mobile app. We’ve had some hiccups there, but are smoothing those out, so that the customers will have clearer and more ac­curate information, so that the station monitors will project better information, so that the announce­ments on board are loud enough and clear enough, and so that our operations center can deal directly with the streetcar operators to improve our custom­er experiences. We’re working through all of those.

Q: What’s going on with your community education program?

Childs: Customer education is an ongoing effort community wide effort. We’ve kept our Street Team engaged for the summer, making sure that there are informed ambassadors on the cars and on the plat­forms to answer questions, and to help with hands­ on training and demos for things like the ticketing system. Once we start revenue operations, we want to be sure our riders can use the various ticketing options easily. That  includes  the mobile app, tick­et kiosks at the platforms, and on-board ticketing systems. Our Transit Police  are  working  diligently to minimize traffic blockages and educate the mo­toring public as to the changing environment while assuring our customers are safe on the system. It’s really important that we all share the road, and fol­low all of the traffic laws and city ordinances – es­pecially not parking on the track! We want to avoid slowing everything down as that can ruin the QLINE experience  for everyone.