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Posts Tagged ‘FRA’

FRA Review Of Texas HSR

For its high-speed rail project, the Texas Central Railroad is proposing to use Japanese Shinkansen (“Bullet Train”) technology. The Shinkansen is, by all accounts, the world’s safest train system. There have been no fatalities in 50 years of operation. So it is amusing that the FRA would give its expertise on the safety of the technology. Robert Eckels, President of the TCR, describes some of their interactions with the FRA:

Remember how the FRA was developing “alternate compliance” rules to allow the use of off-the-shelf trains? Retrofitting half-inch steel plates into a proven design doesn’t sound very off-the-shelf.

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Two Isn’t Better Than One

Jarrett Walker has good reason to be concerned about FRA rulemaking on crew size. This slide comes from a recent meeting of the FRA Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC):

rsac

From an FRA point of view, this new rule does not change anything. Commuter railroads in the US have historically used conductors and train attendants.

But it is a really inefficient use of labor. Industry best practice is to have just one crewmember (the driver). Ticket validation can best be handled throrugh random POP inspections. If this rule goes into effect, it will be another obstacle to modernizing passenger rail. DMU operations would be especially problematic. Imagine if the new Marin-Sonoma “SMART” service had to use two crewmembers. Sure they might apply for an FRA waiver, but why create more bureaucratic headaches?

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MBTA’s Buggy Railcars

Here is a textbook example of all the problems Buy-America causes for new railcar orders:

A long-awaited fleet of MBTA commuter rail cars, delivered 2½ years late by the South Korean manufacturer, is now so plagued by mechanical, engineering, and software problems that it has to be shipped to a facility in Rhode Island to be fitted with new parts.

Even as a T spokesman described the problems with the cars as “standard operating procedure,” rail workers and their union representatives said the situation is unprecedented, and federal officials acknowledged they are “monitor[ing] the situation closely.”

“In my 40-some years of railroad experience, we’ve never seen problems like this,” said Tom Murray, president of the local chapter of the Transport Workers Union of America.

But Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials say the problems — including issues with doors, air-conditioning, brakes, and signal software — are a normal part of introducing new, more technologically advanced train cars into a transit system.

“Railroad coaches are not like new autos that a buyer drives off the lot,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. “Modifications are made as necessary. . . . This is standard operating procedure throughout the transit industry.”

First, you have to marvel at the MBTA blaming the problems on a more “technologically advanced” train car. For God’s sake, these are primitive commuter coaches. To think that toilets, air-conditioning, and doors are some bleeding edge technology!

But Pesaturo is technically correct that all this debugging is “standard operating procedure” for the US transit industry. That is because railcars have to be custom-designed — in order to comply with the Buy-America rules, and the FRA nonsense.

There is a better way. Let’s do what every other transit agency in the world does: use off-the-shelf trains, follow the global standards. Why shouldn’t the MBTA buy railcars just like the new auto buyer?

So it was inevitable that MBTA’s special-snowflake trains would go through a considerable amount of debugging. This will go on for years. It is not only expensive, but dangerous:

Some of the problems center on the control cars, which are designed to be driven by engineers at the front of the train. The cars cannot be used on rail lines owned by Amtrak, which run south of Boston, because the car’s software is incompatible with the signal system. In some instances, signals inside the train indicate that the engineer has the OK to proceed when outside signals indicate that the train must wait. In those cases, engineers noticed that the signals did not match up and reported the problem.

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On the subject of horn blasting, FRA officials will always say that safety is their primary concern. But in fact, the rule can do more harm than good. An egregious example is the iconic tracks in San Clemente, California.

san_clemente_amtrak

The tracks run past a beach with heavy pedestrian traffic. With no formal crossings, people just crossed wherever. This was obviously very dangerous, so the city proposed a reasonable solution – formal pedestrian crossings, with audible warning systems and other safety features. Fences and landscaping would discourage crossing, except at the designated locations. The idea was that the wayside audible warning system would provide as good (if not better) safety compared to train-mounted horns blasted from a quarter-mile away.

San Clemente applied to the FRA to obtain quiet-zone status for the crossings, but was not successful. The city then approached the PUC, asking the commission to approve quiet-zone status anyway.

Surprisingly, the PUC went along and the crossings were built. But the BNSF railroad derailed the plan, arguing that the FRA had primary jurisdiction over quiet-zones. BNSF filed a lawsuit against the PUC.

In BNSF Railway v. PUC  Judge Robie sided with BNSF. The result is that trains now have to blast horns whereas they didn’t used to (before crossings were installed). The neighbors are understandably livid about that.

While Judge Robie may be correct on the law, this is still bad policy. In his analysis of the case, UCSD Law Professor Shaun Martin notes:

The opinion might benefit from a recognition that this result is suboptimal. For everyone. It harms homeowners (as well as beach visitors). It discourages cities like San Clemente from enhancing pedestrian safety (since the result will be massive annoyance to its homeowners). It seems not to advance public safety in the slightest. It’s simply the result of an ossified historical structure — the traditional use of horns located on the train — that does not comport with modern technological capacity.

How did we ever get to the point where FRA rules prevent cities from fixing pedestrian hazards?

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The investigation has just begun, but it is likely that the NTSB will find that the fatal Metro-North derailment was due to excessive speed. It is precisely the kind of accident that PTC would have prevented.

But the FRA has a different view. FRA Administrator Joe Szabo sent a blistering letter to the MTA complaining of unspecified problems in its safety culture:

The Federal Railroad Administration today called for mandatory safety retraining of Metro-North workers and the creation of a confidential reporting system that lets employees report safety concerns, according to a letter from the agency to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It directed MTA, which operates the railroad, to respond by Dec. 6. The MTA needs to show its employees “a serious, good faith commitment to the safe operation of the system and inform them of the steps that MTA will take to enhance safety in both the short- and long-term,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote in the letter to MTA Chief Executive Officer Thomas Prendergast.

At best, his letter is premature. At worst, it is disingenuous for trying to deflect blame from the FRA.

Historically, the FRA was opposed to PTC technology (until Congress intervened in 2008). Since that time, the FRA has botched the PTC implementation. Rather than pointing fingers, the FRA needs to answer why the PTC implementation is taking so long, despite being a turn-key technology.

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FRA To Re-Visit Horn Rule

Here is some good news. Colorado Senators Udall and Bennet say the FRA will review its train horn rules:

Following months of pressure and numerous requests on behalf of Colorado communities, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall welcomed the Federal Railroad Administration’s recent decision to review its train noise rules and consider how to cut red tape and make the required train-crossing upgrades more affordable for local taxpayers. The reassessment of the agency’s rules, noted at the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee’s Oct. 31 meeting, will give Colorado communities an important opportunity to weigh in as early as Spring 2014.

Bennet and Udall pressed the Federal Railroad Administration in a recent letter to reopen its rules and give Colorado communities the flexibility they need to confront train noise — which can hurt businesses and residents near crossings — and protect public safety.

“The FRA’s decision to reevaluate their regulations on train horns is encouraging news to local communities. This step demonstrates some Colorado common sense, balancing safety concerns with the desire to revitalize urban areas, promote economic growth, and generally have reasonable peace and quiet,” Bennet said. “We look forward to continuing to work with federal and local officials to develop a responsible solution that will better support these communities.”

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Fort Collins Attempts Quiet Zone Waiver

Fort Collins is one of those old railroad towns where they still have street-running trains. This never used to be a problem, until the FRA horn-rule went into effect — and the horns became louder and more frequent. Because the track runs through the middle of town, any Quiet-Zone implementation would be costly and disruptive. A number of cross-streets would have to be closed, to the detriment of nearby businesses. So the city is going to attempt a waiver:

The city for years has been studying whether it could and should create a “quiet zone” along the Mason Corridor by making a series of intersection changes, including much larger crossing gates. But installing those safety measures would cost about $5 million and make it much harder to get around Old Town.

Now, the city is trying something different.

Instead of closing off some intersections and significantly rebuilding others, the city has decided to ask federal officials for a waiver from the horn rule. The city plans to tell federal officials it will make some smaller intersection changes and offer up other safety solutions. City officials believe they can make the case that because Mason is so unusual, Fort Collins deserves special dispensation. City, railroad and federal officials say Fort Collins is unique because the BNSF Railway tracks run down the center of a city street.

We will see what happens, but the FRA has been rigid in its application of the rule. Even in cases like Fort Collins where the trains travel at very slow speeds.

fort_collins

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Loud Enough To Wake The Dead

Homeowners are still suffering noise pollution along the NJ Transit RiverLINE. The problem is the FRA’s insane horn blaring rule:

On weekdays, 91 River Line trains sweep north and south between Camden and Trenton, starting about 5:45 a.m. and ending about 10 p.m., when the commuter trains make their final runs.

But peace does not descend on these river towns, even then.

In Pennsauken, Palmyra, Cinnaminson, Delran, Riverside, Delanco, Edgewater Park, and Bordentown, residents living close to the tracks are shaking fists at an unknown Conrail engineer whose long, loud horn-blasts in the wee hours sound “hostile,” they say, and even “spiteful.”

It should be a policy goal to encourage people to live near train stations, not drive them away:

“You can’t have a conversation” when the horns sound, said the wife, who gave her name as Nancy. “And that guy on the freight train is so obnoxious,” she added.

She pointed to a vacant two-story white clapboard house across Woodlane Road, adjacent to the grade crossing. The owner, a widow, “just walked away from it” several years ago, she said, because she couldn’t sell it.

“What good is a house,” she asked, “if you can’t enjoy it?”

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The reaction by the US press to recent European train accidents is…interesting.

An actual headline on CBS News says: Despite Spain Crash, California Proceeding With High-Speed Rail System. (In some alternate reality, one can imagine this headline: Despite record automobile fatalities, California Proceeding With Freeways.)

And the Westport News is thankful we don’t have those dangerous European trains:

U.S. rail cars are manufactured to much higher safety standards than European or Asian trains. The Federal Railroad Administration sets standards of survivability based on “crash worthiness” while the foreign systems aim for “crash avoidance.”

Of course that means our trains are heavier and less fuel efficient, especially at high speed.  But they’re built with crumple zones, like your car. [Not quite true]

Amtrak’s Acela is hardly the fastest train in the world, but a former FRA member told me he thinks it’s the “world’s safest for crash worthiness.” Before Amtrak ordered the bespoke train sets, they brought over a Swedish tilt-train (the X-2000) and Germany’s ICE trainset to demonstrate the potential of high-speed trains between Boston and Washington.

I had a chance to ride both, but while they garnered great PR for Amtrak, neither of the trains (among the best in the world for the time) met U.S. safety standards, then or now.

Even taking into account recent accidents, there is nothing especially dangerous about European trains. Here is some recent data from Eurostat. Note that no data for 2012 is available yet.

EU_stats1

EU-pkm

Let’s assume that 2013 will be an historically bad year. In addition to the Spain and Paris crashes, there will be 89 other fatalities (89 being the highest recorded in the Eurostat database) — for a total of 174 fatalities. Even taking that into account, I calculate the overall fatality rate would be around .38 fatalities per billion passenger miles.

How does that compare to the FRA’s “World’s Safest” trains? Well, Amtrak has averaged .4 fatalities per billion passenger miles.

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A loan application to build a Las Vegas high-speed rail line was rejected because the operator wanted to use foreign-built trains:

The Department has made clear that we prioritize projects that build a foundation for economic competitiveness by advancing domestic rail manufacturing in the United States. The FRA expects recipients of RRIF loans to purchase steel, iron, and other manufactured goods produced in the United States for their projects, regardless of whether the rolling stock is separately financed.

We recognize that a foreign equipment manufacturer may face challenges in meeting these Buy America requirements when responding to an initial opportunity in the United States for a limited order.

Note that the loan was not going to be spent on the train-sets. They would have been purchased separately. But the mere fact that any non-US goods were to be used was enough to kill the project.

And how exactly is this rigid adherence to Buy-America supposed to create jobs?

Now some would argue that this was a bad project anyway. The line would have terminated too far from Los Angeles to attract enough ridership. I agree with that point, but the rejection letter makes no mention of this. So what happens when the next HSR application comes along — and it is a really solid application. Will the DOT again make unreasonable requirements on rolling stock?  There is no domestic HSR manufacturing, and it is unrealistic to expect HSR manufacturers to magically spring out of nothingness to market trains for a project.

What we have here is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Domestic HSR manufacturing cannot exist without HSR lines being built. And HSR lines cannot be built if the DOT mandates domestic rolling stock.

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