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The Mass Transit Man

thomas abdallah
Thomas Abdallah is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and an engineer for the MTA New York City Transit.

By Harmony Eberhardt

Thomas Abdallah, an adjunct professor in the Sustainability Management Program of Columbia University, loves mass transit.

And that’s a good thing, because Abdallah is the deputy vice president and chief environmental engineer of Capital Program Management at MTA-New York City Transit, where he gets to inspect and improve transit facilities every day.

Managing existing operations while integrating sustainability initiatives can be a challenge regardless of industry, let alone one that runs 24 hours a day and services millions of New Yorkers daily. Add to the mix antiquated infrastructure and century-old signal systems and it is no surprise MTA has struggled to keep pace with New York City ridership. In a fitting analogy, Abdallah says making upgrades at MTA is a lot like running down the street and changing your clothes at the same time.

Over the past 30 years, Abdallah has worked to reduce negative environmental impacts of MTA-NYC Transit facilities and construction projects, and to expand energy efficiency initiatives. He seeks to educate fellow transit professionals and engineers as well as policymakers and manufacturers on the importance of sustainability in transit.

I met Abdallah in his office at the MTA New York City Transit headquarters in downtown Manhattan. Books, awards, and family photos crowded his bookshelves and a four-foot tall MTA train map was propped up against the wall, which he frequently used to point out train lines and important locations during our conversation. The following is an edited and condensed transcript of our discussion.

Q: What are your responsibilities as chief environmental engineer at MTA?

A: Every five years, we have a capital program plan that includes billions of dollars of work for projects to rehabilitate, reconstruct, or in some cases, expand the MTA infrastructure, facilities, or purchase vehicles. I review these projects from the beginning to ensure we have a handle on environmental impacts that may require mitigation. For instance, if we demolish structures, we want to ensure dust is not released during construction. We have to make sure certain plans are included: noise mitigation, pedestrian protection, storm water management, etc.

Once the rehabilitation has been completed, we don’t want there to be impacts on the community. We don’t want an area where residents may be exposed to an air conditioner or a big fan. Whenever we rehabilitate a station or bus depot we want to do it better.

My particular accomplishments are with facilities. For example, we’re working on energy efficient subway maintenance shops, where we repair subway cars. We have about 20 of these facilities. We’re trying to use less energy, natural lighting, natural ventilation and green roofs.

Thomas Abdallah on the NYC subway.
Thomas Abdallah on the subway.

I also get called when people complain about the sound in the system. We all live near the train system—it’s kind of like the background music here, but when it’s off, when it’s irritating, it’s a maintenance issue.

The [train] wheels and the rails have to be smooth. So if you reduce the amount of noise and vibration, you get a smoother ride, and you use less energy because friction is not working against you. So environmental and maintenance issues come back to saving energy.

When I took over as chief in 2004, what I learned is that we were already doing a lot [in terms of sustainability]. Architects design for energy efficiency to allow for natural light, and orient buildings to take advantage of natural ventilation. Mechanical engineers are looking to have efficient motors. Electrical engineers work to reduce electrical losses. We have electricity that gets generated in upstate NY but by the time it gets to New York City, 60 percent has been lost. So anytime you can prevent losses, that’s energy efficiency.

We were doing all these initiatives to save money, but half of them were sustainability initiatives. So I started telling everybody about our sustainability initiatives.

Q: What spurred you to write your book, Sustainable Mass Transit: Challenges and Opportunities in Urban Public Transportation?

A: In March of 2016 I got an email from a publisher, Elsevier. They asked me if I knew of any environmental experts. So, I emailed back: “Yes, me.” My job over the last 30 years has been to make mass transit more sustainable. I wanted to explain why mass transit is a sustainable solution.

Q: What will readers take away from Sustainable Mass Transit?

A: In order for me to explain sustainability measures, I have to give you an education on the whole transit system: from horse drawn carriages to coal-burning locomotives. I have to talk about current infrastructure. When you get on the train or the bus, there are countless bus depots and storage yards throughout the city.

Then there is one of the most important environmental aspects of transit – which is electricity use. We take people out of their cars and into transit, but we still have a carbon footprint to deal with. Even if we’re using electricity, 70 percent of electricity in this country is still generated from fossil fuels. So that’s our biggest environmental issue.

The rest of the book looks not only at MTA transit—we’re just a small piece of it – but also transit agencies from LA, Chicago, Newark, Boston, Philadelphia, Portland.

The transit industry in America over the last 20 years has done a really phenomenal job of reducing their carbon footprint and emissions while still moving many, many people.

Q: Is there an aspect of mass transit that you are particularly passionate about?

A: I’m very passionate about renewable energy. There’s obviously a lot of energy [used] when we run our trains. I was fortunate in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s, to have a senior vice president and a president who wanted to show the world what could be done from a sustainability point of view.

We built an 80,000-square-foot solar panel to power the station lights, token booth and crew quarters at the Stillwell Avenue terminal. We did it to show the world you could do it and it’s got to start somewhere.

The most important sustainability initiative in transit is called regenerative braking. When the motor is in acceleration mode, it wants electricity. When the train brakes, we can reverse the polarity of the motor through deceleration and it moves electricity back in the third rail for the next train.

So in peak hours when there are trains every two minutes (or hopefully every two minutes), the train behind it or in front of it can capture the energy. However, when trains are 30 minutes apart the energy can’t be used and dissipates as heat. In my book, I mention several case studies that make great use of regenerative braking coupled with energy storage.

Q: What current or future initiatives are you excited about?

A: One potential project that I’m looking forward to is a Bus Rapid Transit program on the North Shore of Staten Island. We started it in 2012 and shortly we will begin the environmental review process.

The public bus system is the most robust of all the mass transit. If you don’t have money for tunnels, elevated structures, or money to maintain a light rail, a bus rapid transit is a perfect way to help cities thrive.

In 2000, the public bus system [across the United States] used 635,000 gallons of diesel fuel. In 2013, it used 428,000 gallons—so [diesel fuel use] dropped by a third in 13 years. In that same period of time, the amount of riders increased. So they were able to improve ridership and still lessen the amount of fuel used. That was the result of two things: hybrid buses and natural gas buses. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel that burns greenhouse gases, but it’s better than diesel.

Electric buses are the future. MTA right now is piloting 10 electric buses. If the pilot is successful, there will be more to come in the future. I am optimistic.

Q: Do you consider yourself a train buff?

A: I think I’ve become a mini-buff, but I’m not a major buff. I’ll tell you why. There are transit buffs out there that know every inch of our system, better than we do. There are people that just love the whole idea of trains and subways: the transit historians, the transit fans.

Q: Do you get to visit any interesting underground sites?

A: I am allowed to go into the tunnels and walk. When you’re standing on the track, you see how large from the ground up the train car is—you’d be amazed. It’s kind of scary. But I get to go underneath the city. I call it the “basement of the city.”

Actually, one area I was allowed to go based on the authority I have, was Ground Zero after September 11, 2001. When the World Trade Center came down, it destroyed our tunnel so about 4 days later I actually visited Ground Zero.

It was horrendous — it was like a war zone in the middle of Manhattan. I actually watched the World Trade Center being built in 3rd or 4th grade, from the window of my school at PS 104. I watched the World Trade Center being built and then from downtown at the MTA offices on September 11, 2001, I watched them come down.

Q: How did you begin teaching at Columbia?

A: In my career, I’ve been asked a lot to guest lecture in university sustainability, engineering, transportation, and industrial hygiene courses. I enjoyed going to classes, meeting students and talking about projects.

One day, out of the blue, I got an email [from Columbia] asking me if I would be interested in a position. The position they were offering me was Capstone Advisor. The idea is to learn by doing—[capstone advisors] guide students through a real consulting project. I was like, “that sounds great!”

I’m a big fan of Columbia, the students, and the Earth Institute. The way I see it, it’s almost like you’re at a Broadway show and you’re watching the show, you’re really enjoying it, and then they’re like, “C’mon—you’re going to be in the show now!” That’s how I felt. Columbia is who’s who of sustainability people in this city, so it’s an honor.

Harmony Eberhardt is a student in the Sustainability Management master’s program at Columbia University. 

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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babe palmieri
babe palmieri
6 years ago

Fabulous job Thomas Abdallah is doing great story i enjoy reading it keep up the good work.

6 years ago

Very proud of you, Tom.
Keep up the good work!!

6 years ago

Congratulations to one of sustainability’s leaders in the field of mass transit!

B Wilds
B Wilds
6 years ago

While rails are viewed and hailed as an energy efficient way to move freight they could also be a great way to move people, but to do so we need to take a fresh look at what is really required and what is not. The wide heavy tracks and stout passenger cars we use are overkill. A much lighter and smaller style pod would work, it could even be equipped with an undercarriage that would move the wheels in or out to adapt to a narrow “public transportation” or the wider standard rail tracks now in use. Years ago trains were limited by many factors that no longer apply today. Improvements in materials and advancements in technology have cast the door wide open to rethinking the whole people moving process.

The lighter weight people mover could sport its own motor or drive system allowing it to move without being pulled by an expensive and heavy conventional locomotive. It does not require a great deal of horsepower to get a much lighter weight car moving and once rolling little to maintain or achieve greater speeds. If each car has its own drive system it allows far more flexibility in scheduling and cars no longer have to be bunched together allowing for more departing times. Features such as GPS would tell us exactly where cars are and adjust their travel while security cameras would assure passenger safety.