2 cities put light rail near hospitals, like the plan that worries Duke. Here’s what happened.

The Durham-Orange light-rail project could come to a head this week as a deadline nears for seeking $1.24 billion from the Federal Transit Administration.

The 18-mile light-rail system would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham, and points in between. The state has set a deadline of April 30 for the local money to be in place, and Nov. 30 for the federal grant.

With a grant, construction could start in 2020.

But rising costs and Duke University’s decision to stop working on the project have put millions of dollars and a decade of planning at risk. Duke President Vincent Price and others said the decision was based on multiple concerns, from patient safety and emergency access, to vibration and electromagnetic interference.

Most of those concerns have been or could be resolved, GoTriangle officials have said. The tale of two cities that already have light rail serving their medical and university centers show there is still room for caution.

The GoTriangle Board of Trustees will consider the next steps for the now-$2.7 billion project at its meeting Wednesday,

Light rail and EMI

Light-rail trains are powered by an electrical current running from overhead catenary wires into the engine and returning through the rails to a traction power substation. The train’s movement also causes temporary changes in the earth’s geomagnetic field.

The processes combine to create electromagnetic interference, or EMI, which in large amounts can cause problems for sensitive equipment, like MRI and diagnostic scanners.

Veteran EMI consultant Charles Edelson said electromagnetic interference problems are rare, and there’s usually a solution. Edelson was part of a team in the 1980s that developed the federal transportation system for identifying EMI causes, symptoms and solutions.

Analysis only goes so far, he said in a phone interview, while listening to details of the Durham-Orange project and EMI reports.

“We won’t know there’s a problem until they get the rail line in and start doing some testing,” Edelson said.

Location, monitoring key

Many medical centers and hospitals are served by light rail, but a review of their locations using Google Earth showed that light rail in most cities runs 200 feet or more from medical and research buildings. Some Duke buildings are just 150 feet from the light-rail route.

A longer distance lets more of the EMI dissipate before reaching sensitive equipment.

Two light-rail systems with tight medical and research corridors are the Red Line through Texas Medical Center in Houston and the Green Line at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis. Both have health and science buildings within 150 feet of the trains.

Trevor Roy, spokesman for Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Metro Transit, said a decade of planning for Minneapolis’s Green Line faced “significant hurdles,” including a lawsuit, as reported by MPR News. The line opened in 2014, about 100 feet from two science buildings and a block from the medical center.

The trains were expected to affect roughly 100 labs and more than 150 pieces of equipment, said Leslie Krueger, University of Minnesota assistant vice president for planning, spaces and real estate.

The university moved its nuclear magnetic resonance equipment, and the regional government group building the project made changes to mitigate EMI and vibrations. Construction crews were required to meet testing and performance standards, and vibration and EMI issues have been monitored twice a year since the line opened, Krueger said.

In 2015, water and debris seeped into electrical boxes embedded in the rails, causing EMI spikes near the medical buildings, Krueger said. No equipment was damaged, she said, and a rubber membrane was installed to correct the problem.

“We were really motivated to make this work,” Krueger said. “We really saw the value of having light rail through campus.”

Electrical leaks and pipes

The Houston Chronicle reported that Houston’s first light-rail line sparked a funding fight with congressional leaders, divisive debates and lawsuits. The 7.5-mile line through Texas Medical Center opened in time for the 2004 Super Bowl. It now serves more than 53,000 riders every weekday, Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, known as METRO, reports.

“There were people who thought we would have issues, because we were running by the medical center, and the line put out electromagnetics that interfere,” EMI consultant Edelson said. “As I recall, we didn’t find any interference.”

Roughly a year after the launch, stray electrical current was detected leaking from the rails into the ground. As the stray current finds its way back to the power station, it moves toward conductive materials in the earth, including iron and steel water pipes. The electrons carried in the electrical current can corrode those pipes, leading over time to cracks and breaks.

The medical center fought the Red Line, but it lost, said Richard Wainerdi, president emeritus of Texas Medical Center. There also were consultant problems and traffic issues, he said, and the 2007 lawsuit Texas Medical Center filed against METRO and the project’s construction manager Siemens Transportation Systems Inc.

The medical center’s consultant found a risk for damage from stray current, but Siemens claimed immunity from any lawsuits. The medical center and METRO agreed to testing and liability requirements in 2009, and Siemens reimbursed METRO for over a million dollars in testing, repairs and consultants. METRO spokeswoman Laura Whitley said the agency still tests for stray current.

“Those tests have never detected leakage,” Whitley said in an email. “Additionally, stray current leakage has never been verified.”

Texas Medical Center 2.jpg
The Red Line light-rail train picks up passengers on the Texas Medical Center campus in downtown Houston in this recent image from Google Streetview. The light-rail line continues to face traffic problems in the narrow corridor, where drivers commonly run red lights and turn left in front of the trains. Google Streetview Contributed

Traffic, bad decisions

Traffic on busy Fannin Street is another issue for Texas Medical Center. In 2016-17, 11 crashes were reported at one especially dangerous intersection. Most involved drivers who ran red lights or turned left in front of a train, officials said.

Early crash statistics for Fannin Street didn’t include the pedestrians struck by trains, Wainerdi added.

“You’ve got to be very careful where they put it,” he said. “Nowhere near where the emergency rooms are or where it will interfere with traffic.”

Duke “is going a very good job” looking out for its medical center and patients, Wainerdi said in a phone conversation Monday. He scoffed at the idea that Duke should have brought up electromagnetic interference years earlier, noting Duke officials are experts in medicine not railroads.

He also applauded GoTriangle’s plan to elevate the Erwin Road light-rail tracks — a change that added $90 million to the project’s cost. That would have been the perfect solution to the traffic problems and, potentially, the stray current in Houston, he said.

“As long as they do their homework on the medical equipment, and things are shielded and grounded properly, that should take care of it,” Edelson said.

Wainerdi also advised keeping an eye on transit agency attempts to save money on the project and the consultants hired for the jobs.

“The issues that we brought up have continued to be a problem,” he said.

EMI reports at odds

GoTriangle has offered documents showing Duke didn’t raise EMI concerns until November 2017 — nearly two years after the route was set. Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president of public affairs and government relations, raised questions about GoTriangle’s responsibility to build and operate “a rail line safely and without creating danger to public health.”

“In 2016, GoTriangle issued an environmental impact statement describing a plan to route a catenary electric light rail 150 feet from a hospital and research complex. It made no mention of EMI impacts on sensitive equipment, which means they were either unaware of this well-known issue, or chose not to disclose it,” Schoenfeld said in an email.

A draft EMI report from GoTriangle consultant LTK evaluated 37 sites within 500 feet of the light-rail route. It noted magnetic fields would have the biggest effect on sensitive equipment within 200 feet of the trains, it said, offering some possible solutions.

The evaluation also found a “moderate” likelihood of EMI effects at four Duke facilities, including the hospital, and a “low” likelihood at Durham VA Medical Center. It said additional information about potentially affected equipment, and more work, is needed.

Duke consultant Vitatech reviewed the findings and also recommended more analysis but disagreed with LTK’s summary of how EMI could affect sensitive equipment. Vitatech’s review said EMI levels could be several times higher at multiple locations along Erwin Road.

“The preliminary analysis conducted by our independent expert indicates that, in fact, the impact of EMI on medical devices and thus the risk to patient safety appears to be even greater than had been initially understood from earlier data provided by GoTriangle’s consultants,” Schoenfeld said.

Neither company returned calls seeking more information.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.