Archive for January, 2013

The “Train Horn Rule” is a Federal unfunded mandate passed in 2005 by the FRA. It requires railroad operators to blast 96dB train horns at  crossings — even where there are signals and crossing gates. Local communities along the tracks either have to put up with the ear-splitting noise, or else pay millions of dollars for dubious “Quiet-Zone” improvements. The rule has created a lot of frustration for communities that want to promote economic development around downtown railway stations:

As Fort Collins considers spending millions of dollars to silence freight trains on the Mason Corridor, elected federal officials are pleading with regulators to help end a “nuisance” they say keeps residents awake and stifles economic development. About 15 trains run daily along the city’s Mason Corridor, each blowing its horn for at least 15 seconds before entering crossings at intersections with streets such as Prospect, Mulberry and Mountain.

Federal Railroad Administration regulations require those train horns, and there are two ways to silence them: spend millions to install “quiet zones” with special crossing gates, or change federal regulations entirely. So while Fort Collins considers whether it should spend the money, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Colorado Democrats, are asking regulators to reconsider the rules.

“City leaders across the state have told us how train horns stifle business and development in downtown areas and that they’ve run into challenges trying to meet regulations on quiet zones,” Bennet said in a statement issued Thursday. “We’re working to bring their voices to Washington and asking the FRA to take another look at these rules. Ideally, they’ll be more responsive to the needs of communities and we’ll have less bureaucratic red tape.”

Colorado Senators Bennet and Udall have sent a letter to FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo. Here is a copy of that letter:

January 23, 2013

Dear Administrator Szabo:

We write to request that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) reopen the rulemaking process on the Final Rule on the Use of Locomotive Horns at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings (hereafter the “Train Horn Rule”). This would give the affected communities the chance to provide further input on the rule’s impact, while continuing to ensure the safety of their residents.

As you know, the Train Horn Rule was published in 2005 and was designed to promote safety while providing flexibility to communities negatively impacted by the requirement that trains sound their horns at certain times and decibel levels when traveling through municipalities. The 2005 rule allowed municipalities to apply to be a part of so-called “quiet zones” where they could be exempted from train horn sounding requirements when certain conditions were met.

Municipal leaders from Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont, Greeley and Windsor, Colorado have expressed concerns to our offices that the train horn noise is a nuisance for local residents and that it stifles economic development by discouraging businesses and housing developers from building and locating in the heart of their communities. As you may expect, train horn noise impacts almost everyone in communities where the railroad runs right through the center of town and where the business and residential area is spread over a relatively small area. These impacts are amplified in downtown areas, which are focusing on redevelopment and urban renewal, as well as on creating healthy, walkable neighborhoods.

Although the underlying rule provides a quiet zone exemption, the communities listed above have indicated that the complexity of analyzing each different crossing and the costs associated with qualifying for an exemption are prohibitive for many municipalities in the state impacted by the rule.

While we strongly support the Train Horn Rule’s goal of reducing accidents at highway-rail grade crossings, we are concerned that it may prevent certain municipalities from being able to create quiet zones without incurring prohibitive costs. A more flexible rule could enable these communities to craft a solution that ensures safety yet also reduces noise and promotes long-term economic growth.

The Office of Management and Budget recently invited comment on the rule regarding how information and data relevant to the rule’s implementation is collected, with the goal of streamlining the process of collecting information from affected communities.

While this is an encouraging step, we believe the rule itself should allow for additional flexibility. It is therefore our hope that the FRA will consider re-opening the rule in order to consider further changes.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

TGV passing through level crossing — without sounding the horn.

Read Full Post »

Security Theater Comes to Emeryville

Another reason not to ride Amtrak:

Read Full Post »

LRV Trailer Trash

If the sight of streetcars bothers you that much, then maybe you shouldn’t go downtown?

To allow that turnaround, and to let the north-south trains pass by, the VTA wants to create a bypass, or spur. The planners estimate the Campbell trains might wait only six minutes on the regular track to let other trains pass, but with four trains arriving per hour at peak times, the big light rail vehicles would be parked at St. James Park for a good piece of the day.

So what’s the problem? As former San Jose Councilwoman Judy Stabile points out, the historic district includes both the parks and the buildings that surround it, like Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, the Post Office, the old Courthouse.

To leave the light rail cars parked at the station blocks the view and insults the historic fabric. It’s like your neighbor asking to park his RV in front of your house.

Yep. Next thing you know, St. James park will look like this hellhole:


Read Full Post »

Park Or Parking?

Park or parking?

The new owner of the old SCPA school presented plans Wednesday to turn the historic building into 170 market-rate apartments, preserving details from marble arches to blackboards.

The catch: He wants to turn half of the old playground into a parking lot. Pendleton residents who have long treasured and used the greenspace provided significant push back on that point. They described walking their dogs, picnicking and playing in a kickball league there.

“It is important to us to preserve natural resources as much as historic resources,” neighbor Myra Greenberg said to applause from the crowd of around 100 at the Pendleton Community Council meeting. “It was the residents who planted all the trees that are there now. The citizens owned this space for 60 years.”

John Watson, principal of Indianapolis-based Core Redevelopment, said the apartments will range from 500 to 1,100 square feet, and $775 to $1,600 monthly rent. He insisted that the $23 million development requires 230 spaces, less than the 255 spaces dictated by zoning.

“I have to park people somewhere,” Watson said.

On-street parking isn’t an option, he said: “Within three blocks of the school there are some negative influences. I can’t ignore that.”

“Negative influences” presumably refers to the people of color in the neighborhood.

Watson said he’s short about $3 million on funding for the project, assuming he receives historic tax credits. “We’re talking to the city about helping to close that gap, a couple of not-for-profits,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll get there, but we’re not there yet.”

Hmm, if only there were some way to save $3 million. Perhaps by using existing parking:


Read Full Post »

The Three Stooges

In case you missed it, here is video of the Amtrak Press Conference — where it was announced that California will be buying Acela-2 trainsets.

And if you were wondering how (or why?) a single trainset may be designed for both the NEC and CHSRA, you can listen as John Boardman explains that it is simply a matter of switching the trucks…or um, something.

And if you were wondering how this will reduce costs for California, you can listen as Jeff Morales explains that Buy-America policies, and a proprietary FRA spec will increase their buying power…or um, something.

Actually, the entire video is a huge embarrassment to the profession. I suggest having a lot of stiff drinks to make it through all the cringe-worthy moments.

Read Full Post »

One of the puzzling things about the CHSRA has been its inability to work with existing partners. For example: Caltrain and the CHSRA are supposed to be sharing track and stations (as part of the “blended” plan) — but there has been almost no cooperation between the two agencies. Those new EMU trains that Caltrain will be getting with electrification are being designed without any input from CHSRA. Same for the new Caltrain signal system.

And now that mystery got a lot weirder. Amtrak and the CHSRA have announced they will be doing a joint procurement on train sets:

Amtrak and the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) are joining forces in the search for proven high-speed rail (HSR) train sets currently being manufactured and in commercial service that are capable of operating safely at speeds up to 220 mph on both Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) and on California’s developing HSR corridor.

“This is about investing in 21st Century state-of-the art high-speed rail,” said California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales. “We are pleased to join with Amtrak and look forward to continued collaboration in the future. This is a natural fit since Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and California will be the bookends for American high-speed rail.”

Perhaps Jeff Morales isn’t familiar with North American geography? California and the Northeast Corridor are several thousand miles apart.

Seriously, it is really hard to come up with a rational explanation for this plan. The NEC is a 100-year-old legacy infrastructure, whereas the CHSRA is nearly a clean-sheet design. Why make California’s system backwards-compatible with a legacy rail system thousands of miles away?

Read Full Post »


In court today, Lindsay Lohan’s attorney submitted a Not Guilty plea on reckless driving charges:

Lohan is charged with reckless driving, lying to police about whether she was driving when her Porsche slammed into the back of a dump truck, and obstructing police from performing their duties. The accident occurred while Lohan and her assistant were on their way to shoot a beach scene for the television movie “Liz and Dick.” The actress told police that she wasn’t driving, but police suspect she was behind the wheel.

Lohan already has two DWI convictions, and was also caught driving on a suspended license. She has been involved in numerous accidents. The Jalopnik blog asks the obvious question: how does Lohan still have a driver’s license?

At the very least, her car insurance must be ridiculous. Lohan and driving were enough of a concern for Lifetime producers to specify that she couldn’t operate a motor vehicle while they were filming Liz & Dick, in which Lohan starred as Elizabeth Taylor (the insurance for the picture would have been too high). Just this year, she’s been involved in three accidents, one of them a hit and run.

I’m sure her high income helps with the car insurance payments, but a more troubling question is why the DMV has not taken action? Sadly, it probably isn’t because she is rich and famous. It is rare for the DMV to revoke anyone’s license, even when there is ample reason to do so. 

The tabloid press, of course, enjoys playing up Lohan’s driving antics. And it is all fun and games, until she hits a babystroller.

Read Full Post »

The Grass Is Greener

As much as we like to poke fun at American public works blunders, even the Germans have their fiascos. Der Spiegel summarizes some of the worst cost overruns in German public works projects. The root causes should be familiar to Americans:

Burdened by protests, requests for costly extras or other demands, the train stations, rail lines, airports and even concert halls still haven’t been built. Costs rise — doubling or even quadrupling. The people are outraged and a city’s entire reputation can suffer, as has proven to be the case in Berlin with the failure to complete the city’s new international airport. Politicians are always happy to tout the success of completed projects, but if problems creep up in their construction, few are willing to take any responsibility.

In many instances, the false calculations are deliberate. Werner Rothengatter, a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, has studied major public works projects around the world. He says there’s a similar pattern in democratic societies, where politicians have a tendency to deceive the public about the actual costs of these projects.

Rothengatter argues that cost overruns rarely come as a surprise — regardless of whether they are from the Berlin airport or Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie concert hall. During his research, he found that most politicians try to calculate the price to be as low as possible in order to obtain support for the projects — deliberately veiling the potential risks.

An additional problem is that the supervisory boards overseeing these projects are often filled with politicians who have no expertise when it comes to major infrastructure projects, as evidenced in the case of the Berlin airport, where both Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Brandenburg Governor Matthias Platzeck (whose state is also a shareholder) are board members. But the administrators who are actually responsible for the day-to-day work on these projects are often hopelessly overextended.

Read Full Post »


Here is another example of two government agencies working at cross-purposes.

SMART, the commuter-rail agency, is developing a new service along the highway-101 corridor. Meanwhile, the Marin Transportation Authority (TAM) is expanding highway capacity in the same location. One transportation agency trying to shift mode-share to trains, and the other transportation agency encouraging car travel.

The latest highway project from TAM is the Greenbrae interchange project — where Highway 101, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and the Larkspur Ferry Terminal meet (the Ferry Terminal, by the way, is to be the terminus for the SMART rail line). The interchange will get giant new flyovers, and screw up cycling for years to come:

The plan also could impact the bike and pedestrian traffic in the area, making it more dangerous for those groups, said Andy Peri, advocacy director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. He noted the pedestrian and bike overcrossing over Highway 101 will be taken down as part of the project.

That will force those users to use car-busy Wornum Drive.

“People will not be comfortable having to use Wornum,” said Peri, adding that a new overcrossing should be built as part of the project. “There is a lot of traffic activity there. We want encourage bicyclists and pedestrians, not discourage them.”

The Greenbrae interchange project comes at a time when SMART still faces major financial shortfalls. As a result, SMART has done everything from stealing bike/ped funds, to blasting the MTC for not providing sufficient financial support.

And aside from the competing rail project, it should be noted that urban interchange projects rarely make sense. They are insanely disruptive and expensive ($143 million in this case), and provide hardly any traffic relief:


Read Full Post »

Disastrous Preparedness

How disastrous was New Jersey preparation for hurricane Sandy?

By now you may have heard about how New Jersey Transit parked their trains in rail yards, even after being warned they were in the flood zone:

A report on climate change completed for NJ Transit months before superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey urged the agency to begin planning for higher storm surges that could envelop rail yards, destroy track beds and corrode switches, gates and signals.

The Oct. 29 storm caused more than $400 million in damage to the agency’s system. The $45,990 study included a map that shows the Kearny and Hoboken rail yards sit squarely in “storm surge areas.” Sandy floodwaters inundated both yards, swamping locomotives and rail¬cars — including 84 new multilevel passenger cars — and damaging spare parts.

In those two yards, damage to railcars and locomotives was estimated at $100 million. Nearly two months after the storm hit, NJ Transit’s rail service is still not operating at 100 percent. And the decision to leave locomotives and passenger cars in the low-lying yards has provoked a torrent of criticism from lawmakers and rail advocates. Throughout it all, NJ Transit officials, at hearings in Trenton and Washington, D.C., have maintained that they had no prior knowledge the yards could flood.

The story is actually much more horrifying than what has been widely reported. It wasn’t just trains left in low-lying areas — but also prisoners.

The nearby Hudson County Correctional facility was also inundated by the storm surge. My sources inform me that prisoners in the ground-floor cells had to be quickly evacuated to the upper floors when a wall of water came crashing through. Fortunately nobody was killed, but as you can imagine, it was rather terrifying to be locked in a cell as flood waters came pouring in. Some of the inmates suffered panic attacks.

Read Full Post »