Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Federal Matching Funds: Down Payment Edition

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

Note: The following post is from rafael, who offers an excellent discussion of federal matching funds.

Robert has kindly invited me to submit a blog entry on federal matching funds for Prop 1A.

HSR critics have repeatedly pointed out that federal and private matching funds for the California high speed project are not yet confirmed. Proponents retort that there is no chance of securing such funds until and unless California voters approve the proposition.

Nevertheless, even in the midst of the economic meltdown, Congress has been pressing ahead with its Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (version H.R. 2095.EAH). Among other things, it includes $9.776 billion for Amtrak plus $1.5 billion for nationwide HSR development over the next 5 years. For the purposes of the bill, those are defined as systems capable of top speeds in excess of 110mph. The Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor receives special consideration, but all 11 identified HSR corridors are eligible to submit proposals between 60 and 270 days after the bill is signed into law.

Unless it is knocked off the Senate schedule by new developments on the $700 billion TARP bill, it is expected that the final cosmetic amendments will be approved before Congress adjourns for the elections. President Bush had previously raised objections, e.g. on the nationwide installation of interoperable positive train control systems, ostensibly on the grounds that they are "not yet proven". Similar systems are already de facto standard equipment in e.g. Europe and Japan. The bill, which may well pass with a veto-proof majority, would make them mandatory by 2018.

If Prop 1A passes on Nov. 4, the state of California will have a very strong basis for making an early claim on the funds allocated by H.R. 2095 (assuming it, too, passes). At a minimum, the state should be looking for federal matches for the $190 million reserved for Amtrak California plus $900 million for the remaining preparatory HSR work required before construction can be put out to tender. Additional matches for HSR feeder services other than Amtrak and for HSR construction proper would be sought at a later date.

First, California should insist on leading the development of the next generation corridor train equipment pool, largely on the strength of work already done by Caltrain (Appendix C), NCTD and SMART. The objective should be to create a regulatory basis for the mixed operation of FRA-compliant freight trains and off-the-shelf passenger train designs designed to meet European crash safety standards (EN 12663 and EN 15227). This should include traditional locomotives, unpowered cars and self-propelled cars (DMU/EMU). Permitting mixed traffic under certain circumstances would reduce wear and tear on the tracks and, greatly reduce both acquisition and fuel costs. Moreover, Caltrain's results so far suggest crash safety in grade crossing accidents would be at least maintained if not improved.

Simply put, mapping a path toward mixed traffic will gradually reduce capital and operations overheads for both Amtrak and commuter rail services nationwide. It would greatly facilitate the public transport renaissance needed to deal with structurally high oil prices, chronic congestion on the roads (associated with productivity losses), air quality and CO2 emissions by the transportation sector.

Second, total ridership on Amtrak California's three corridors is second only to that of the NEC. There are solid arguments for installing PTC technology there as soon as possible, especially if lightweight rolling stock is ever to become the next national passenger rail standard. The definition of PTC should include the development and implementation of open software standards for emergency data communications between railroad dispatchers and even individual trains. At the the discretion of the Secretary of Transport, other railroads may also be required to implement PTC. The bill allocates a total of $250 million for implementation, with a requirement that non-federal sources must pick up at least 20% of the tab. In the wake of the Chatsworth disaster, California should position itself as the testbed state for PTC reliability and interoperability.

Third, California is furthest ahead in the development of a true high speed rail project (top speed in excess of 186mph). It will therefore blaze a trail in developing the ROW acquisition, detailed planning, vendor selection and engineering expertise required to construct and operate such a system. The other 10 identified HSR corridors will all benefit greatly from the experience that will be gained by an initial $900 million investment in the California system.

In particular, a new "High Speed Rail Academy" would be tasked with developing a cadre of homegrown specialists to be employed by state and federal oversight agencies, planning bodies, engineering firms, construction companies and operators. Given the large number of HSR projects around the world, the US cannot rely on the availbility of foreign talent alone. The academy would be a virtual organization leveraging universities, vendors, contractors and existing operators to provide formal certifications at multiple levels. Its research focus could be on HSR-specific safety issues (incl. e.g. anti-terror measures and wildlife trespass identification/prevention), on rail-wheel noise reduction to enable nighttime (cargo) operations at reduced speed and, on reliable low-latency broadband internet connectivity for both in-cab signaling and enhanced passenger information/productivity/entertainment options.


Brandon in San Diego said...

That is fine discussion on Federal matching and current legislative activities.

But I have a differing opinion on a strategy about how California should respond.

Namely, I feel the CHSRA planned system should remain separated grade and not have mixed traffic!

Was there miss-communication?

One, is safety. Slow moving freight that is also influenced by other parties creates too much opportunity for mistakes.

Second, CHSRA trains will be too frequent to slot-in slower moving freight. That may not be the case in the initial years; however would be the case in the near future or 2030 conditions. If freight is permitting on the tracks early on, it would be difficult to remove them later on.

Perhaps only in the middle of the night when HSR trains are not scheduled at all... could I feel differently.

Rafael said...

@ brandon -

perhaps we got our wires crossed here because my post covers both HSR and existing passenger rail services.

The high speed trains will run on dedicated tracks, except in certain short sections, e.g. the tunnel to the new Transbay Terminal in San Francisco. The reasons for full segregation are:

a) system capacity incl. high top speed
b) service punctuality
c) impact of FRA regulations on the Acela Express

The mixed traffic concept relates to Amtrak long distance, Amtrak California, Metrolink, Caltrain, NCTD Coaster, ACE and SMART (if approved). Even after HSR enters service, all of these will share tracks with freight trains and/or legacy FRA-compliant passenger rolling stock.

Creating an upgrade path that will allow regular-speed passenger rail operators nationwide to gradually migrate to lighter rolling stock should be a top priority - it is cheaper to buy and operate. Other than HSR, every passenger railroad needs operating subsidies. In the long run, enabling mixed traffic would save taxpayers money.

Note that BART already operates non-compliant rolling stock based on an FRA waiver awarded because its broad gauge tracks are dedicated. Both Caltrain and CHSRA will also both seek waivers to operate non-compliant rolling stock.

In theory, BART could implement interfaces with the existing standard gauge network via variable gauge truck technology already in service in Spain. However, there are significant interoperability issues besides the gauge. Chief among these is FRA's current policy on mixed traffic.

Rob Dawg said...

Okay, for the sake of argument. $18b down, $15b to go right? Then operating profits make the rest of the system much easier to finance.

Good thing we've got this new business model or else the opponents would be able to play havoc with that issue.

Brandon in San Diego said...

Thanks Rafael.

But, where in the adopted CHSRA plan do HSR trains operate on the same track as heavy rail?

I have never seen any info indicated that HSR track would be shared with anything other, and that CHSRA would be 'fully' grade separated.

Or, is the limited sharing your opinion on what could be tolerated?

I always thought I was 'in the know' on this project, but if I am wrong on that 'feature', I have some thinking to do!

Spokker said...

High speed rail will share track with Metrolink in the south and Caltrain in the North. I've been told that trains will operate closer to 115 MPH than 200 MPH in these areas.

Check out some of the 3D renderings on the official web site. They show Metrolink and Caltrain running on the same tracks.


It won't be a big deal on the peninsula. Freight traffic is VERY light on this line, mostly operating at night after Caltrain has stopped running.

Light rail can operate on the same tracks as freight as long as they don't run at the same time. In Northern San Diego County the Sprinter runs on a freight track from morning to evening, and the freights make their runs after that.

So I don't think there's going to be a problem here.

In Southern California, here's what I think.

The high speed rail will share the same tracks as the Orange County Line because they follow the same route from LA to Irvine on the LOSSAN corridor.

I believe that the 91 Line and the Inland Empire-Orange County line will continue to operate on the freight tracks because they have to divert from the LOSSAN corridor at some point and go to Riverside.

Unless... they want the HSR tracks to be connected to the freight tracks, trusting that the freight trains never run a red and accidentally switch to the HSR tracks. This would definitely require positive train control and might wreak havoc with rule making and such. I do not want to see the HSR trainsets become too heavy.

High speed rail from Irvine to Los Angeles is going to be tricky. In my opinion it's going to be a bigger mess than running HSR on the Caltrain tracks.

Caltrain is pretty much just Caltrain. On LOSSAN you've got BNSF, Metrolink, and Amtrak. It's going to be a hell of an exercise to try and get everybody to cooperate and figure out what traffic is going to run on which tracks.

Anonymous said...

CHSRA won't start spending serious money until it starts building something. That's at least 3-5 years away in the rosiest scenario. What will happen at the Federal level in the coming years? What will happen with the economy and energy/environment in that time frame.

The feds don't give a project all its money at once. It appropriates as the project progresses. This is a many-year project and will be funded over many years.

Anon, because I can.....

Brandon in San Diego said...

Spokker, I have seen each NC3D CHSRA video; some several times over.

I double checked a couple just now.

In a single instance, for a quarter second, a video did show a non-CHSRA train using the same tracks as CHSRA; HOWEVER, it was also an HSR train.

I have no safety related objection to other HSR services using CHSRA tracks. I do for non-HSR trains.

Rafael or Spokker, if there is a video I am missing, or there is CHSRA text speaking to such, I'd like to see it. Otherwise, I feel safe assuming CHSRA is grade separated.

It's beside the point, but I think if a local or regional HSR service is operated on CHSRA track, that the service should be operated by CHSRA (as a contractor, per se). ... just like if San Jose wanted to run a regional HSR service on CHSRA track... they should contract with CHSRA to run that service.

Brandon in San Diego said...

For anon, regardless if McCain or Obama is elected president... I feel extremely comfortable in assuming the Feds will come forward with matching funds.

But, it's kinda like playing poker right now. The Feds don't want to be the bottomless well for funding and want local participation as much as possible. Between now and when final funding decisions are made, we'll see each party move forward in stages or small steps. What is seen as short steps in the beginning should not be taken negatively.... just the Feds doing an honest effort on their part.

arcady said...

BART does not, and never did, have anything to do with the FRA, not because of the non-standard gauge but because their system is not part of the national rail network. VTA's light rail, Muni, and the NYC Subway operate in the exact same way. If you look closely, by the way, at the crossover from VTA to Caltrain, you'll notice that the rails aren't actually connected. It is this that puts VTA light rail under the jurisdiction of the FTA rather than the FRA (for the most part).

Now, the HSR system can be built that way too, and there are some advantages and disadvantages to that: scheduling is easier since you only have HSR trains, and you don't have to deal with FRA regulations. On the other hand, you end up with duplication of infrastructure, and preclude through-running.

Now, in any scenario, to go fast, you need a dedicated line, with only HSR or other fast trains on it, so none of this changes the core of the system, from Gilroy to Newhall or so. But consider the Caltrain corridor: it's only wide enough for four tracks in most places, and only two in a few spots. Building HSR as a separate system either means reducing Caltrain to two tracks pretty much permanently, or lots of expensive land condemnation and construction. Alternatively, and I think this is the alternative that Caltrain would prefer, both HSR and Caltrain get taken out of FRA-land and can share the mostly four-track right of way. However, this does mean the permanent end of freight rail service on the Peninsula, meaning that there will be no way to get anything into San Francisco except by trucks. Noisy, road-hogging, polluting, and inefficient diesel trucks. It also means that there will never be a Coast Daylight train to SF, nor any SF-Salinas or SF-Monterey service, ever. Nor for that matter direct SF-Chicago or SF-Reno or SF-Tahoe trains.
A similar problem arises at the south end, only worse. Metrolink can't be taken out of FRA jurisdiction, since they don't own all their own track. And there are some places where it would be difficult to fit in both Metrolink and HSR tracks without a lot of very, very expensive condemnation and construction, especially in the area from LA Union Station to Irvine.

If, however, the HSRA manages to get permission to connect their line to the national rail network, their job becomes much simpler. For one thing, they can focus on only building the core system, avoiding expensive urban construction, much like the TGV uses existing rail lines to get into Paris. They can run through services from the core line to other parts of the rail network that won't have direct HSR lines, which would help San Diego and Sacramento get service much faster. And hey, maybe it's not as unlikely as some people think. After all, Eurostars do run on the north american rail network (in Canada, hauled by diesel locomotives).

Which option is better? Well, we can look at world experience. Of all the countries that have HSR systems, only one, Taiwan, opted for the completely disconnected option, largely because its conventional network uses narrow gauge, which imposes a speed too restrictive for HSR. Even in Japan, there are a few places where the Shinkansen and conventional trains share tracks using a three-rail track due to incompatible gauges. And in Spain, which also has the problem of differing gauges, they developed gauge-changing trains that can run both on the standard-gauge HSR network and broad-gauge regular network. And as for sharing HSR tracks with other services, that's also relatively common. For example, the HS1 line in England will soon have commuter trains running on it, which will go to Ebbsfleet or Ashford before exiting onto the regular rail lines to continue their journeys. Likewise, I believe that the ICE lines in Germany also have slower traffic. And the Perpignan-Figueres line from France to Spain is built to be dual-use by TGVs and freight trains, since it provides an important connection over the Pyrenees. Imagine if the HSRA let UP and BNSF use the new high speed line over the Tehachapi Pass, even if only for the fastest container trains and only at night. I bet UP opposition would vanish overnight if such an offer were to be made.

Rafael said...

@ arcady -

"Imagine if the HSRA let UP and BNSF use the new high speed line over the Tehachapi Pass, even if only for the fastest container trains and only at night. I bet UP opposition would vanish overnight if such an offer were to be made."

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. First, the HSR tracks will feature gradients of 3.5%, way more than the 2% maximum for freight trains.

Second, US freight trains feature extremely heavy locomotives and flatbed cars often carry two containers each. Before long, the resulting ear and tear on the track bed would mess with the tight geometrical tolerances required for safe travel at high speed.

Note that France's La Poste does own and operate a number of light cargo TGV trains for express mail and parcel service. Potentially, cut flowers, fresh meat and fish (all chilled but not frozen), premium produce and air cargo containers could also be distributed on HSR tracks.

Daytime operations require close co-ordination with passenger service schedules, possibly even combo passenger/cargo trains. The cargo trainsets would have to be coupled and decoupled as needed to minimize dwell times for passengers.

Nighttime operations through built-up areas would require lower speeds and reductions in rail-wheel noise (an active research area).

Either way, cargo operations would require dedicated sidings or short spurs off the main line to enable loading and unloading. These are not part of CHSRA's plans for the HSR stations.

arcady said...

Rafael: yes, it's true that a dedicated passenger line can be built with steep grades of up to 3.5%, while freight requires less steep grades. However, the Tehachapi Pass is a major bottleneck for both UP and BNSF, a long, steep, curvy single-track route. If they had the money, they'd almost certainly want to build a new line that is more straight, level, and double track. It would be more curved than a dedicated passenger line, but less steep. And the idea is that it would be much cheaper to build a single line that is straight and not steep rather than one straight but steep line and one more curvy but less steep line. And an 8 hour nighttime window is enough to move 48 freights in each direction at 10 minute headways, which is close to double the capacity of the existing line, and this without any daytime freight trains at all. And in the relevant area, in the mountains, there are no passenger station, and no freight customers, so no problem there. And I don't know what it is you're saying about nighttime operations: in LA at least, freights run at night just as much as during the day.

So no, it's not completely simple, but it would be much cheaper to build a single line for both passenger and freight, than to build them separately. The problem is that the HSRA's focus is too narrow, and there's no agency really planning the future of California's rail network as a whole.