Friday, May 29, 2009

Review of Yesterday's FRA Meeting in Sacramento

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

Thanks to Matt Melzer for attending and compiling these notes (with help from Ryan Stern) from yesterday's FRA meeting in Sacramento on high speed rail. Lots to chew over here! -Robert

Besides presentations from the feds, there was one from Amtrak's VP Policy and Development, Stephen Gardner, who emphasized that Amtrak wants to be THE national HSR operator. He also said that expanding state partnerships is "Amtrak's future."

Will Kempton, Mehdi Morshed, and Bill Bronte acted as the regional presenters, making the public case for California to receive stimulus funds based on the obvious success and maturity of California's passenger rail programs. Their PowerPoint also had nice maps showing CAHSR integrated with each existing Amtrak California corridor, as well as all three. Yet, there was no illustration of long-distance routes, regional rail systems, or Thruway motorcoach connections. So the visualization severely minimized the true reach of the state passenger rail network.

The Surfliner route north of LA looked like an errant finger, with San Luis Obispo positively orphaned. This, of course, has no relation to reality, with the existing Thruway connections to Hanford and the Bay Area, as well as the Coast Starlight and the future Coast Daylight. It's this lack of emphasis on statewide connections on the part of the HSRA that leads to situations like Pete Rodgers of SLOCOG opposing Prop 1A supposedly because he didn't think there was anything in it for SLO. Even if the $950 million for feeder rail and transit improvements didn't exist, he'd still be wrong.

After their presentation giving an overview of the federal HSR Strategic Plan and Next Steps (to which I'll refer readers to previous posts regarding details), Karen Rae (FRA Deputy Administrator), Paul Nissenbaum (FRA Director, Office of Passenger and Freight Programs) and Gardner engaged in Q&A. Some of the juicier questions:

Representative of LA County MTA: With the billions of dollars LA County voters approved for new transit projects in Measure R, why can't MTA use future HSR connectivity benefits as part of cost-effectiveness calculations for FTA New Starts applications? Why aren't FTA's criteria more holistic?

Rae: "We've talked more with FTA in the past 6 months than [we probably did] in the past 15 years." FRA and FTA are aware of such issues and will discuss them more moving forward.

Jason Lee, San Francisco MTA: With so much focus on cost, won't HSR grant applicants cut corners and shy away from key projects like the $1 billion Transbay extension?

Rae: We're "struggling" with how to handle such megaprojects, of which there are many across all modes, that demand huge resources concentrated in very small project areas. Some of these issues could be addressed in the transportation reauthorization bill. Criteria for numerous federal transportation grant programs could conceivably evolve.

Representative of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers: Union Pacific is grappling with Positive Train Control, which system is best, and how to implement it. Shouldn't the feds lead the charge for one interconnected PTC system?

Rae: FRA and the Rail Safety Advisory Committee are working to support the federally-mandated effort for a national PTC standard. We hope that PTC will be as interoperable as other standard railroad equipment.

Gardner: Interoperability is in the law (S.294, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act [PRIIA], the Amtrak/passenger rail reauthorization and rail safety bill that passed last year). Train control will be a critical issue as we develop corridors that exceed 79 mph.

IBEW Rep.: UP gave the impression that they didn't know about the interoperability requirement!

Paul Dyson, President, Rail Passenger Association of California and SW Division Leader, National Association of Railroad Passengers [Disclaimer: I, Matt, serve under Paul on the NARP Council]: There's a lot of talk of partnerships today. Look at the three providers of passenger rail in Southern California: Amtrak, Metrolink, and Coaster are crummy partners [along the Surfliner route], with passenger-unfriendly schedule coordination. Who's to say states like Arizona or Nevada would ever be willing to work with California as regional "partners" in HSR development, as FRA is encouraging states within regions to do?

Rae: "It is not an easy conversation." But there's nothing like competitive grants to provide an impetus for partnership. "There's not nearly enough money to go around," but best practices in multi-state compacts will emerge from this process.

Representative of Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen: Amtrak is mandated to be profitable; will HSR operations be?

Nissenbaum: Capital subsidies will be required, but it's the responsibility of applicants to account for operating expenses. Amtrak or other operators will seek assurances so that they're not exposed to any risk of operating losses.

Gardner: The profitability clause is gone from Amtrak's mission due to PRIIA, which did stipulate that Amtrak must still minimize the need for federal coverage of their operating losses. States must also cover the losses of any new services.

Rich Tolmach of California Rail Foundation (and plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking to invalidate CHSRA's EIR): Will the same FRA safety standards still apply to new high-speed equipment?

Nissenbaum: Absolutely, yes. We will need to create new standards for equipment that operates about 150 mph, since they don't currently exist.

Rae: FRA Administrator Joe Szabo isn't here today because he's touring European HSR equipment, seeing how they achieve both efficiency and safety.

Ryan Stern, State Representative, National Association of Railroad Passengers: Given the moribund state of the domestic passenger rail supply industry, how do we create an environment that allows for ongoing production of rolling stock, so that cars can be purchased quickly and affordably?

Gardner: This falls under the work of the PRIIA-mandated Next Generation Corridor Equipment Pool Committee [which is developing national standards for various types of passenger rail cars]. But we do have to live in the world we have now.

Rae: The White House is in active talks with our domestic industrial manufacturers to retool underutilized production capacity.

Matthew George, Caltrans: Do Amtrak's agreements with host railroads provide for HSR?

Gardner: They apply at any speed, hypothetically. But we'll work collaboratively with our partners and not just "show up" with high-speed passenger trains intermingling with slow freights.

George: How much can you rely on those agreements?

Nissenbaum: You can't; there must be operational agreements specific to each service. But "master agreements" can be a starting point.

Beverly Mason, AECOM: What is FRA's policy on adapting European and Asian HSR trains to domestic use?

Rae: "We will not compromise our safety record." But new technologies are being explored. Sealed HSR systems especially could support more exotic equipment.

Lastly, there was one hour of breakout groups to address the following three sets of questions, which we randomly called upon share with the whole audience at the end. At least a good 60 percent of attendees stayed for this, whereas crowds had apparently thinned considerably in other cities' workshops. Rae emphasized that FRA is taking all feedback seriously, since the entire national HSR effort is a nascent work-in-progress. The questions were:

1. What does success from a national perspective look like in 2 years, 5 years, and 10 years? How do we measure success?

2. What factors are critical for implementation of the program? What is the role of the federal government, states, and others?

3. What does your region need to succeed, in the short or long run?

All groups wrote their ideas on worksheets, which were ultimately collected. The FRA is expected to make the presentations given at the meeting available on the web "at some point in the future."

-Matt Melzer


theo said...

To sum up: lumbering tanks like Acela are in. European and Japanese style rolling stock are out. PTC is "critical" but they have no idea what they're doing about it, and neither do the freight railroads.

Sounds like it's time to defund the FRA.

P.S. Can we get a post on the freight-rail antitrust/monopoly debate that's currently happening in Congress?

Robert Cruickshank said...

Yeah, I was *very* disappointed to read that the FRA is still totally clueless when it comes to HSR rolling stock and their outmoded and indefensible standards on passenger car weight.

However, that may not hurt California. Karen Rae did seem to think that on dedicated HSR tracks we might be able to bring European and Asian style trains in.

This is a big battle we need to have. The FRA culture *must* change.

Alon Levy said...

The answer to the first safety standards question tries to have it both ways. If the current standards "Absolutely" apply, then the part about "We will need to create new standards for equipment that operates about 150 mph" is moot, and vice versa.

Jarrett Mullen said...

I agree with the above two comments. It's disappointing to read FRA is still stuck in the 1900's for safety requirements. One of the reasons for choosing steel wheel on steel rail technology is for the abundance of "off the shelf" equipment. When the FRA refers to this equipment as "exotic," we have a problem.

Anonymous said...

let me add this link to the meeting held in Atherton last evening (5/28/09) as reported in the local paper.

Matthew Melzer said...

Let me caution that I paraphrased the speakers. These are not direct quotes unless specifically indicated.

I do not believe Karen Rae used the exact word "exotic," but there was certainly a connotation that overseas HSR is weird and foreign.

Having said that, policy change at FRA will probably not come from within FRA itself. So let's not get too angry at FRA staff for continuing long-standing policy. I think their intentions are noble; they said repeatedly yesterday that HSR investment is completely new to us and that the whole point of these workshops is to generate ideas to make HSR implementation effective. I give FRA much credit for this effort.

Anonymous said...

If the Feds run the show, then your project is doomed from the start. They are just risk averse bureaucrats and nothing will get done. And whatever gets done will be engineered by a committee of lawyers and lobbists (not engineers). As they say: a camel is nothing but a horse designed by a committee. I think that if your dream is to ride these trains you're better off if you just get a passport and a plane ticket, because you'll never see these trains in America, I don't care what Obama says.

Anon said...

How do you figure California will be a 'closed system' or dedicated HSR tracks? Through the Peninsula (at least), those are going to be shared tracks.

Richard Mlynarik said...

FRA Rae: "We will not compromise our safety record."

Anonymous said...

Another good reason for relocating from Caltrain to the 101 corridor - no contact with freight railroads.

Dealing with the FRA's requirement for heavy freight specs is a direct consequence of the 99-Tehachapis-Palmdale route choice. If an all-freeway alignment had been selected an FRA Acela diktat could be avoided.

Eric M said...

For christs' sake, get over the 101 alignment!!! Are your people that dense to realize that there is a very active 120+ year old ROW that is going to be used that you people moved next to! Unreal, NIMBY's.

Anonymous said...

This is my favorite part!--- "Besides presentations from the feds, there was one from Amtrak's VP Policy and Development, Stephen Gardner, who emphasized that Amtrak wants to be THE national HSR operator. He also said that expanding state partnerships is "Amtrak's future." --- HA! I knew it was headed that way. Gonna get my free rides! yay for me. Can I help you? Would like to upgrade today? Have a nice trip.

Jarrett Mullen said...

Anon @ 7:34:

The CAHSRA was never planning on using FRA certified equipment. With that said, the only location where CAHSR tracks would be shared with freight trains is on the Caltrain corridor. However, freight movements would probably be limited to after passenger hours since Caltrain plans to make use of non FRA compliant EMU's. A similar operation exists on the Oceanside-Escondido Sprinter. Non compliant DMU's run during the day, while freight trains utilize the tracks at night.

Matthew, thanks for the clarification. I hope the FRA will eventually see the light when it comes to their crash requirements.

political_i said...

"We will not compromise our safety record."

The FRA really needs to get a reality check. Rail safety requires collision prevention technology, not dead weight that does not help at all. If a train is designed correctly, it can withstand a crash better, but it'd be more beneficial to safety to implement PTC and other technological means versus requiring dead weight to be hauled around.

Isn't it true that a tested EMU withstood FRA collision tests better than FRA standard equipment?

Anonymous said...

Maybe what they are saying when they say "we will not compromise our safety record" is "No changes to the way we do things will be allowed until we make sure that any new way of doing things is developed by us, approved by us, and approved by those who's interests we protect. Only then will a new way be allowed" or the short version of that which is " don't call us, we'll call you" Its perfectly understandable and I'd have to side with FRA. Everyone just hold on ok don't get your knickers in a twist.

Alon Levy said...

Even on the Caltrain corridor, HSR will run exclusively on the express tracks, and freight exclusively on the local tracks. However, both will share track with commuter trains, which will use mainly the local tracks but occasionally overtake slower trains using the express tracks.

Anonymous said...

They can't just be on separate tracks they have to be separated with a physical barrier too.

Ryan said...

Are the powerpoint presentations from this meeting available online anywhere? I would really like to take a look at what was presented.

Anonymous said...

Something IS wrong with this elevated berm idea though - After following the the ROW Through Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto, I find that there is no reason whatsoever to elevate this row. Lets look at this with some common sense...these are the facts as far as I can see with my own eyes.

1) The existing railroad property is wide enough through the entire stretch, for four tracks without taking any property.

2) Their is a lot of existing foliage which, although it will need to be trimmed back to the railroad property line inside the row, can still be left in place and augmented with addtional foliage and camouflaged sound absorbing wall material.

3) The cross streets, which are the supposed argument for for elevating the train... well, there are only a total of *ten* streets that currently cross the tracks that would need to become underpasses if we do this at grade. They are:

1) Fair Oaks
2) Watkins
3) Encinal
4) Glenwood
5) Oak Grove
6) Ravenswood
7) Palo alto Ave
8) Churchill
9) Meadow
10) Charleston

Now, of those ten streets that would need to be underpassed if we leave the train at the less intrusive grade level rather than the more obnoxious elevated solution, only five pose the problem of interfearing in any meaningful way with adjacent streets or private homes. (Encinal, Glenwood, Churchill, maybe Meadow, and Charleston.

Surely it makes more sense, and would be less expensive to engineer mitigation for these intersections than it would be to elevated the entire stretch. A grade level train is quieter, less obtrusive, and in the case of these particular neighborhoods which are already heavily foliaged, would be very easy to further foliate and sound absorb in a way that would actually make the row more attractive than it is now.

I am the only one who can plainly see this. I mean really - if we all take off our "have it my way" glasses and look at it. It works. It's cheaper, It's quieter and it looks better.

Now of course folks will jump in right away and say "you can't...blah blah blah here and you can't blah blah their" But actually, yes you can, and for less.

Anonymous said...

damn I just posted this in the wrong section.

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Anonymous said...

Hope someone at the meeting commented that the critical issue is allowing lightweight equipment, and that "crashworthiness" is totally worthless from an actual safety point of view, and that we should use off-the-shelf European signalling systems, 'cause they *work*.

Perhaps having the FRA administrator actually in Europe looking at actual European safety systems will make a difference!