Archive for April, 2013

Matt Yglesias wonders “if one of these days we could have a real technical expert run DOT rather than a politician.” David Gunn, former head of Amtrak, has made the same complaint. I’m obviously sympathetic, but it is the right idea for the wrong position. What I mean by that is that much of the technical dysfunction falls under the FRA.

It was on this date four years ago that the Senate confirmed Joe Szabo to head the FRA. And whereas Obama’s second term will be getting a lot of new blood, that does not appear to be the case with the FRA. The country will apparently be stuck with Szabo, which is not a good thing for advocates of intercity and high-speed rail.

His record over the past four years is dreadful. The FRA has budgeted over $12 billion on projects, without accomplishing even one mile of HSR line. And despite many promises, the onerous FRA regulations have, if anything, gotten even worse. The PTC mandate is behind schedule, and his FRA funded the idiotic Caltrain CBOSS project. The next two years will be critical — do we really want the guy who tried to paint the letter “F” on locomotives?

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marcMARC is one of the few commuter rail operations in the US that still does not permit any on-board bike access. Not even the off-peak and reverse-commute runs. By comparison, some heavily used systems like BART Caltrain offer considerable bike accommodation — even during peak hours.

One of the excuses heard from MARC staff is that bikes could become a lethal “projectile” in the event of a collision. This is one of those myths that just won’t die. There has been decades of operational experience all over the world, and I have yet to find a single instance of a passenger being impaled by a flying bicycle. And that isn’t to say it isn’t theoretically possible, but then again it is theoretically possible for anything onboard a train to become a projectile — strollers, luggage, iPads, or other passengers.

Even if one accepts the bike-projectile-of-death theory, there always the option of installing bike racks. And what better opportunity than a $153 million order for new Bombardier bi-levels:

Governor Martin O’Malley announced today that the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is investing $153 million to acquire fifty-four (54) new “multi-level” passenger rail cars for the MARC commuter rail system. The cars, manufactured by Bombardier Transport, will replace older cars that have reached the end of their service life, allowing MARC to provide additional seating capacity while expanding its existing fleet. The Board of Public Works approved the purchase today.

Seating capacity on board is greater than those of the cars that they will replace. They will come in three variations. Fifteen (15) new “cab cars” that contain an engineer’s compartment for operation will seat 127 passengers. Thirty-four (34) “trailer cars” will hold 142 passengers, and five (5) cars containing bathroom facilities will hold 132 passengers. The new cars will have a useful life of up to 40 years. When they come online, MTA will retire twenty-six (26) single-level passenger cars and twelve (12) Gallery style cars. Overall, the MARC fleet will expand by sixteen (16) cars.

Oh, and the new cars will have zero bike racks. Nor any other kind of on-board bike access.

80% of the funding came from the Federal government. Federal transit grants come with a long checklist of requirements, including ADA, Buy-America, and Civil Rights. Bike accommodation really needs to become part of the Federal grant approval process. No Federal transit dollars should pay for this kind of crap.

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FRA Not Cooperating on Acela-2

When Amtrak planned the Acela back in the 1990s, one of the design goals was to use an off-the-shelf trainset. That would avoid years of debugging and extra costs involved with designing a new train. Of course, it didn’t work out that way — thanks to the FRA. The FRA created so many special rules, that Amtrak had no choice but to build a custom train.

And has the FRA learned anything from that fiasco? You would have thought so, based on the joint press conference held by the FRA, Amtrak, and the CHSRA. The key message was that this time Acela-2 would be an off-the-shelf design, and that the FRA would do everything possible to help Amtrak achieve that goal.

Unfortunately, it does not appear that FRA staffers got the memo:

FRA believes that future high-speed operations will in comparison save on bids because of the increased number of trainsets and carbuilders that will meet the final rule’s standards with little or no modification compared to the number that would have met the prior rule’s standards with little or no modification.

FRA notes that, in commenting on the economic analysis for the NPRM, which attempted to quantify the benefits of the rule changes, Amtrak stated:

The assumption that the standards simplify the design process of the equipment and would save $2,000,000 per train set is false. The Acela example indicates the exact opposite to be true. The FRA rules, as existing and proposed, eliminate the possibility of purchasing off-the-shelf equipment. The engineering work required to design new compliant equipment alone would far outstrip any possible savings from the rules if there were any to be had.

FRA believes that the former rule would not have permitted many, and perhaps might not have permitted any, carbuilders to offer off-the-shelf equipment with little or no modification that would have met the acceleration requirements on track with geometry having the maximum allowable deviations. Under the final rule it is likely that several carbuilders could provide off-the-shelf equipment that will meet acceleration requirements on minimally compliant track. This will lower costs through increased competition, and use of existing designs. Further, railroads may now be able to order equipment without tilting mechanisms and operate that equipment at high cant deficiencies, thus saving the costs of tilting mechanisms and making the number of available trainsets even greater. Based on the above, FRA does not agree with Amtrak’s comment for the purposes of this final rule. It is not unreasonable to estimate that the equipment procurement benefits alone will justify the costs of the rule. However, even if FRA eliminates from consideration equipment procurement benefits, as a result of Amtrak’s comment, FRA believes the high cant deficiency and streamlined testing requirements would justify the costs of the rule.

This is mind boggling. Despite HSR being a top priority of the President, the FRA is still creating roadblocks.  You really get the idea that FRA bureaucrats are living under a rock. The ultimate responsibility, though, is FRA Administrator Joe Szabo. I’ll have more to say about him in a follow-up posting.

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I am shocked to discover Florida Highway Patrol may have an unwritten policy of not issuing traffic tickets to Legislators:

A state trooper who said he was “trying to be nice” stopped a state legislator for speeding on I-10. But instead of writing Rep. Charles McBurney a $250 speeding ticket, the trooper, in his own words, “cut him a break” and offered him a much cheaper alternative of a $10 fine for not having proof of insurance. As a result, he got fired.

McBurney said he was not going 87 miles per hour as Trooper Charles Swindle alleged, and that his cruise control was set at 75. The lawmaker also said he did have proof of insurance, which he said Swindle didn’t request. Outraged by the trooper’s conduct, the lawmaker complained to Col. David Brierton, head of the Florida Highway Patrol — and last week the FHP fired Swindle for violating department rules, including conduct unbecoming a public employee.

Swindle has hired a lawyer and is challenging the firing and claims the patrol has a long-running unwritten “quid pro quo” policy of not issuing traffic tickets to state legislators.

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Here is another outrageous story from Florida of a police officer acting with complete disregard of the law:

WFTV obtained more video Friday that shows an Orlando police officer hitting a pedestrian with his squad car. Police will only say he’s under criminal investigation, but Officer Michael Fiorentino-Tyburski is still allowed to patrol the streets.

It’s been almost three months since the pedestrian was hit at Hughey Avenue in downtown Orlando.

An investigator concluded in January that the officer was at fault for leaving the scene. The video shows the victim, Tetris Nunn, rolling over Orlando patrol car No. 8128 with Fiorentino-Tyburski behind the wheel.

On Friday, Channel 9 obtained the 911 calls and radio transmissions in the case. On the radio transmission, Fiorentino-Tyburski can be heard dodging questions his own department was asking him.

The conversation with dispatch went like this:

“Ten-four. We just got a caller for a Signal 4 at Hughey and Washington and we’re just trying to figure out if that was you,” the dispatcher said.

“I’m not there anymore. Who called it in?” asked Fiorentino-Tyburski.

“Signal 4” is code for a crash and it was the victim who called it in on an witness’ cellphone. He said the officer hit him and left the scene.

“Did the officer say he was coming back or why did he leave if he hit you?” asked the operator.

“Uh, he just hit me and, you know what I’m saying, he was, he blamed it on me and he just took off,” said the victim.

Here is video footage of the incident. Investigators say the victim was jaywalking. Unfortunately, the ped signal isn’t visible in the video, although it does appear he was walking with a green light. The Google Streetview location of the intersection is here.

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I am not of the opinion that CEQA law itself requires “reform”. In the vast majority of projects, the process works fine for all concerned. There is, however, a small number of cases where inexperienced or clueless Judges have made some really baffling decisions. Case in point: the Metrolink Perris Vally extension:

The court released a single-sentence ruling late Thursday, March 28, denying a writ of mandate filed by the environmental group Friends of Riverside’s Hills. The group sued the Riverside County Transportation Commission in 2011, claiming it had failed to address a number of environmental consequences of the commuter train plan.

Yet the full text made available Monday, April 1, shows Judge Sharon J. Waters ruled for Friends on five of 15 points noted in the project’s environmental impact report: the effects on soil, use of track lubricant, pedestrian safety, train wheel noise and construction noise.

Hopefully the project won’t get held up because the EIR failed to mention the use of track lubricant.



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EyesoreCongratulations to San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal project for being featured as the April Eyesore of the Month:

Behold, the proposed new San Francisco Trans-Bay Transit Center at First and Fremont Streets. Just What the world needs: another “Blob” building designed like a rampaging one-celled organism — a microphage or a man-eating amoeba. The architecture world feels compelled to come up with some new novelty stunt for every proposed new public building. (Notice how many of them look the same! So much for originality.)

And as bad as it is on the outside, it will be even worse inside.

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How many engineers does it take to change the brakes on a train?

The next step is for us along with our contractors, Veolia and Bombardier, to determine the proper procedure for the installation of the new 100g split disc rotors. Together we will take all safety factors into consideration. Once all parties approve this process, we will begin the installation of the new rotors onto the Sprinter test vehicle. FRA and CPUC officials will observe the installation. We have invited representatives from Siemens (the Sprinter manufacturer) and certified California engineers to observe the installation and the testing and to review the data.

This really gives an idea of how over-regulated passenger rail has become. Representatives from two government agencies are supervising, plus the various contractors and other “invited” guests.

And here is a photo of the test-run. Note how they are paying a flagman to stand around holding a Stop sign — in addition to the perfectly operating crossing gates. Can’t be too careful!

Sprinter Flagman

And this testing is expected go on for months:

Sunday’s test, in which one train ran between Escondido and San Marcos, was the first in what’s expected to be a weeks- or months-long overall evaluation period. “Everything went great” Sunday, transit district spokeswoman Frances Schnall said Monday. “Everyone was really pleased with how things went.”

The train reached speeds of up to 50 mph, she said. State law imposes a 55 mph speed limit on the train.

Yep, 55 mph speed limit. Can’t be too careful!

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Worst Mayor Ever

Oh, my. Never thought my opinion of Mayor Ford could sink any lower:

On Christmas Day 2011, police came to his Etobicoke home after Ford’s in-laws called 911 to report the mayor had been drinking and was taking the children to the airport. The incident was filed as a domestic dispute and no charges were laid. Doug Ford later told the Toronto Sun that Ford had not been drinking and that the incident was “blown out of proportion … a minor disagreement and some misunderstandings.”

Sources close to Ford explained the mayor’s behaviour by citing say the stress of budget discussions and the subway debate.

Then on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, Ford and a small entourage including at least two staff headed to a private room before midnight in the Bier Markt on the Esplanade.

On the way to the bar a fellow reveler, Jennifer Gordon, said she saw Ford “stumbling down the street” and she walked up to him.

“He was inebriated and sweaty but in a jovial way,” Gordon recalled shortly after the incident. “Me being me, I said: ‘You’re the worst mayor ever.’”

She said Ford walked over, kissed her on the forehead, and said: “I know, but I try.”

What happened next sounded alarm bells for Ford’s staff. The following morning, senior Ford staff interviewed junior staff who were with Ford at the Bier Markt and asked tough questions about the mayor’s behaviour and whether he had driven drunk. Senior staff were assured Ford did not drive.

Inside the Bier Markt, according to restaurant staff and a Ford staffer, Ford and his small group went into a private room. They appeared intoxicated and were rambunctious. The restaurant staffer told the Star Ford was “incoherent” and “hammered.” Bier Markt owner Robert Medal said this was untrue and called Ford “an exemplary guest.”

At one point, Ford ventured onto the dance floor. The DJ who worked that night told the Dean Blundell radio show the mayor was fighting and carrying on “like an idiot.” He was then escorted out by security. Restaurant staff say he was asked to leave after “storming the dance floor.”

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