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Inside the Ride

How Cool! One-of-a-kind partnership to keep rail riders from feeling the heat


“When the air conditioning breaks down, it’s a hot issue around here!” quipped Alex Caron, a Valley Metro Rail maintenance technician.

But as Alex and his co-workers will tell you, keeping 90-foot metal trains cool during 110 degree heat is a serious – and complex – job.

Because Valley Metro Rail is one of only a few light rail systems in the world operating regularly in 100 –plus degree heat, specialized knowledge is needed to maintain and repair the massive and sophisticated equipment that cools our trains.

Ken Raghunandan runs the maintenance shop for Valley Metro Rail. It’s his job to make sure all light rail vehicles are operating safely as they transport 50,000 riders a day. That includes keeping the trains cool and comfortable! As Ken recently described to local news crews, he reached out to The Refrigeration School, Inc., which happens to be along the light rail line, to create a custom training program. It’s designed to specifically support the maintenance teams that feel the brunt of summer heat when A/C units are put to the test each year.

Seven maintenance technicians, which includes Michael Dechant, are participating in the five-week course that is scheduled around their regular work shifts. “I wanted take this course to learn more specialized skills and expand my job knowledge,” said Dechant. “Each of our a/c units is large enough to cool three average-sized homes in Arizona. We’re learning specific ways the equipment uses hot air to create a cool ride for passengers.”

So what’s the coolest thing about technician Geno Toc’s job? “Air conditioning!” he laughed. “We can’t just work on cruise control,” he admitted. “There’s something different every day that we need to troubleshoot in order to keep the trains in service. This class exposes us to different ways we approach the issues we may face with the HVAC system.”

Technician Gabe Dina retired from working on heavy railroad equipment in Chicago, trading in cold winters for hot summers! “There’s a big difference maintaining trains for the heat,” he said. “One of our trains opens eight doors each time it stops. That’s a giant loss of cool air. The equipment here is very sophisticated in order to handle the workload. We’re learning how to diagnose and repair issues in order to keep up with the demand.”

“Riders want the train to get them where they’re going on time,” said Andrew Burt, who’s has been a light rail maintenance technician for five years. “We focus on getting the train from point A to B safely and smoothly.” He enjoys learning new skills and information like the intricacies of the 1,800 pound HVAC units. “This class is not just about making sure the A/C works and keeps everyone cool,” he said. “It’s about making sure it works safely.”

“I’ve worked on everything in this shop from the wheels to overhead wiring. Now I can do A/C,” said Dan Nichols, who’s eager to complete the training. “I enjoy the challenge of figuring out a problem, fixing it and learning something new in the process.” The Valley Metro Rail Refrigeration Training Program marks the first time RSI has developed a custom program specifically designed around the unique needs of an individual employer. Each maintenance technician will earn HVAC certification, allowing them the skills to work not just on light rail trains, but also on commercial and residential systems.

“You could say we have the coolest job in the shop,” joked Alex Caron. Adding that people get “hot-headed” when the A/C doesn’t work. If the A/C isn’t working on a 112 degree day, the inside of a light rail train can top 125 degrees! “On a daily basis, riders don’t notice how powerful the system is. The doors can open in the middle of the July and the train maintains 73 degrees,” said Alex, who had to get in one more pun. “This class may be full of hot air, but the trains aren’t.”

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