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Archive for the ‘transit’ Category

Nobody wants to be a bag-holder:

Fortress Investment Group delayed the pricing of $3.2 billion of municipal bonds to build a passenger railroad between southern California and Las Vegas, a sign that investors were hesitant to finance such a speculative project at a time of deep economic uncertainty.

Lead underwriter Morgan Stanley had planned to price the deal Wednesday, according to a pricing wire viewed by Bloomberg. The offering has now been postponed with no new date set.

Brightline has until Dec. 1 to sell the bonds to meet a deadline from California officials, who had granted the company the ability to sell tax-exempt debt. In September, Brightline sold $1 billion in short-term securities to preserve its federal allocation of so-called private activity bonds that it will refinance next year, according to offering documents.

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What can be more absurd than spending $150 million on a faregate scam when the BART budget is in free fall? And yet the EB Times still calls Allen a “fiscal conservative”.

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Denver’s RTD A-line operates between downtown Denver and the Denver International Airport. The line was built as an FRA-compliant service, which was predictably a huge mistake. In this case, the problem wasn’t so much with unreliable tank-like trains but rather FRA shenanigans over the grade-crossings.

Grade-crossings are a simple technology. The gate must come down with sufficient warning to give motorists time to stop. By law, this lead time has to be at least 20 seconds:

A highway-rail grade crossing warning system shall be maintained to activate in accordance with the design of the warning system, but in no event shall it provide less than 20 seconds warning time for the normal operation of through trains before the grade crossing is occupied by rail traffic.

49 CFR Part 234.225

Even though the RTD A-line complied with FRA Section 225 requirement, RTD was cited for noncompliance because, according to the FRA, the gates occasionally had excessively long warning times. The FRA would permit at most 15 seconds additional warning time. How or where the FRA came up with this “excessively long” metric is unclear.

In the view of the FRA, gates with excessive downtime will tempt impatient motorists to drive around the gates. It should be noted that these were four-quadrant gates with center medians, so it would take a very determined motorist to do that.

The FRA did give a temporary waiver to RTD to open the line, but only if flaggers were stationed at each and every grade crossing until the “problem” was fixed. In the meantime, Denver RTD and its contractor fiddled with the software to try reducing variation in gate downtime.

Denver RTD contractor spent over two years adjusting the software but could not meet the FRA demands. The reason for this “failure” had nothing to do with the software — the variation in gate downtime was due entirely to conditions outside the control of the system. Once an approaching train activated the warning signal, there is no going back. If the train operator slows the train for safety reasons (i.e. poor visibility or possible hazard ahead), there is no way to recall the signal. No amount of software hacking can fix this basic issue.

Communication between the FRA and RTD contractors became increasingly acrimonious (the letters can be reviewed under docket FRA-2016-0028). The FRA was accused of enforcing unrealistic and nonexistent regulations, and the FRA replied that it would shut down the line if the problem wasn’t fixed. Meanwhile, Denver RTD was paying a lot of money to have flaggers standing around, and the future of the RTD “G” line was in doubt, as it used the same systems.

Things finally came to a head when Aaron Marx, a train signal expert working on the project, was sent around the country to measure gate downtimes on other commuter railroads (including Caltrain and Amtrak/ACE in the Bay Area) as well as UP freight lines. His extensive data showed that the RTD A-line actually had far better gate downtime variation than every other rail line he looked at.

Gate crossing raw data

The FRA had now backed itself into a corner. If it was going to shut down RTD A-line then logically every other rail system with crossing gates would have to be closed too. The FRA relented, and the matter dropped. The issue now is who pays the bill for those flaggers:

Denver Transit Partners, the contractor that built, maintains and operates most of the Regional Transportation District’s commuter rail lines, has upped the amount of money it’s seeking in a legal battle that will go to trial next month. The new figure is $111 million, $31 million higher than the company’s previous estimate from late 2018.

RTD, which has countersued the company, is seeking $27 million in damages, according to a court document filed this week. The dispute between the two entities centers over crossing gate issues that plagued the otherwise mostly successful A Line to Denver International Airport for years, and kept the G Line to Arvada from opening until 2019.

The FRA is not a defendant in the lawsuit, even though they were the ones who caused the problem in the first place.

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MBTA looks at EMU offerings

Here is an RFI update from MBTA, for a proposed EMU upgrade of their commuter rail:

2020-06-15-fmcb-K-EMU-RFI-update

There is “no consensus” on whether to use lightweight trains vs. FRA-compliant tank-trains.

 

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Anaheim has its $200 million ‘ARTIC’ station. San Francisco has its $2+ billion Transbay Terminal. But the award for most expensive and useless intermodal station project will surely go to San Jose, for its $10 billion (yes with a “b”) Dirion makeover.

There is a lot that can be said about problems with the project, but this one picture from a recent presentation sums it up:

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 7.07.16 PM

The Caltrain/HSR platforms are on the elevated structure, and the VTA LRT stop is proposed to be re-located underground. Note that the layout we have today has both the LRT and Caltrain platforms at-grade alongside each other. So after spending $10 billion, they’ve made the transfer worse — even though convenient “intermodal” transfers was a design goal. With the Caltrain tracks elevated above grade, it would be simple to continue the LRT line at-grade through the station area, with a stop directly at a station entrance (preferably the north concourse side on Santa Clara St).

What’s bizarre is that a group of stakeholders were sent on a junket to study European train stations, including this one in Rotterdam –which as you can see has the trams located at-grade directly outside the station:

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 7.18.38 PM

 

 

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Blood on their hands

It was 1 decade ago that Berkeley City Council canceled the AC Transit BRT project, a decision which generated nationwide ridicule. Councilmember Robinson is trying to revive the project, and asked council to reverse the decision. This may be just virtue signaling (Berkeley routinely passes meaningless proclamations), but we’ll see:

Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 11.09.56 PM

The 2010 AC Transit BRT project was much more than bus lanes — it was a Complete Street makeover with left-turn pockets, bike lanes, and crosswalk fixes to make Telegraph safer for all road users.

From 2010 until 2018 (the last year data is available) the CHP SWITRS database records a whopping 216 injuries on Berkeley’s portion of Telegraph Ave. How many of those injuries could have been prevented had the BRT project been built? Well, we can look to Oakland where a road-diet along its portion of Telegraph reduced total injuries by 40%. Oakland DOT also reports that their Telegraph improvements accomplished a Vision-Zero milestone: no pedestrian collisions in crosswalks. By contrast, Berkeley’s section of Telegraph had 54 pedestrian injuries in the years 2010-2018.

Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 11.28.14 PM

Injury collisions (all types)

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TGV derailment

A landslide caused a TGV derailment near Strasbourg. According to media reports, the train was going 170mph, but there were no fatalities:

The driver, whose injury was not specified, was evacuated by helicopter following the accident near Ingenheim, around 30 kilometres (20 miles) northwest of Strasbourg. The train was still intact but the locomotive was leaning on its side and four other wagons were also off the tracks, according to the state rail operator SNCF and AFP journalists at the scene.

“Despite going off the tracks, the TGV remained upright,” the operator said in a Twitter post.

TGV’s have semi-permanent coupled passenger cars, which helps avoid jackknifing.

ESVM4iXWsAE43Nn

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The Problem: transporting thousands of employees from/to a very large North Bayshore employer in Mountain View to the Caltrain station.

The solution, as proposed by some on the Mountain View City Council: a $1 billion monorail:

The idea has been floating around since 2009 under several names and iterations — Personal Rapid Transit, pod cars, SkyTran, autonomous shuttles, monorails and gondolas — all aimed at solving the practical challenge of efficiently moving commuters roughly 3 miles, from the city’s downtown transit center to Google, NASA Ames and other major employers.

Despite the decadelong wait and worsening traffic, the project suffered another setback last month. An $850,000 study to figure out the land requirements needed for the future Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) line, originally intended to begin last month, has been pushed back to November. Council members granted the request of city staff who sought a one to two year delay, citing burdensome workloads and a vacancy in the public works department. The study now aims be complete in April 2021. Estimated costs to build an elevated system over surface streets could cost as much as $195 million per mile, raising questions over how the city could cobble together enough transportation funds to pay as much as $1 billion.

There is of course a trivial solution: just stripe bus lanes. The $850k cost of the study is enough to pay for it. Google and the other employers already have buses, as does the VTA.

prt_mv

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Middle of Nowhere

BART’s low-ridership Warm Springs outpost always had that middle-of-nowhere vibe. But seeing tumbleweeds blow by adds a whole new feeling of remoteness.

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So much for that Climate Emergency.

Last September, Mayor Sam Liccardo and the San Jose City Council adopted a Climate Emergency Declaration that was supposed to focus efforts to reduce the GHG emissions. It followed a similar declaration by Santa Clara County.  63% of San Jose carbon emissions are from automobiles, and yet

San Jose leaders want to squash an effort to divert transportation funding away from highways interchanges and expressway improvements and toward increasing public transit options.

The city council on Tuesday voted 7-2 to send a letter to the Valley Transportation Authority Board of Directors urging them against shifting any money from the funding priorities promised to Santa Clara County voters with the 2016 transportation sales tax, Measure B.

With only about one year into using the 30-year funding source, Mayor Sam Liccardo said that it was too soon to have this conversation. “It is fundamentally disempowering to community and democratic processes whenever we engage in that much outreach and that much engagement and then within a year of us being able to spend these dollars.”

It is amusing that San Jose leaders only now care about adhering to voter promises in the transportation tax measure. Voters were previously promised better Caltrain, LRT, and bus service, only to have that funding redirected elsewhere. It is also strange to say it is “too soon” to have a conversation about funding priorities when VTA has just made cuts to bus service.

 

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