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Posts Tagged ‘FRA’

During the Obama Administration, the FRA began work on a NEC Future plan that was to modernize and speedup the Northeast Corridor Acela service. One of the easiest bang-for-the-buck opportunities is along the Connecticut shore, where train speeds slow considerably. The FRA proposed an inland bypass option, which would have solved the problem. But now the local Nimby’s have succeeded in killing it off:

Bowing to local pressure, the Federal Railroad Administration has dropped plans for a controversial new rail line along the eastern Connecticut shore from its ambitious project to overhaul the railroad system in the Northeast corridor.

[The] FRA dropped plans to add new tracks from New Haven to Providence, preferring instead to focus on increased maintenance and repair of the existing rail line and allowing Connecticut and Rhode Island to work with the FRA and other states, including Massachusetts, on a “capacity study” that could include alternatives to the existing route.

This decision means that NYC-Boston travel times will probably never be made competitive. It should also be noted that political opposition came not so much from anti-rail Republicans, but from anti-rail Democrats — i.e. Connecticut Senator Blumenthal and Governor Malloy.

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Senator Blumenthal

 

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In 2012, Nippon Sharyo won a contract to build new bilevel railcars for California and the midwest. The railcars were supposed to have gone into use by now, but the project (predictably for the usual reasons) has suffered major setbacks. Last year, the carbody prototypes failed FRA crash standards, forcing designers back to the drawing board. There have been reportedly hundreds of change orders.

In January 2017, Caltrans was supposed to present an update for the “next-generation” bi-level cars at a TRB conference. That presentation was abruptly canceled.  Steven Keck, CalTrans’ interim chief for rail, gave a cryptic explanation that no further information could be given due to ongoing negotiations over the schedule delays. Last month, Nippon Sharyo announced major layoffs at its plant, due to ongoing difficulties with the project:

Nippon Sharyo is cutting its workforce by about 110 employees because of continued complications with a prototype rail car, the company announced Monday. The rail-car manufacturer has laid off nearly two-thirds of its workforce in the past 5 months: It dropped 100 of its 350 employees in January.

“We continue to confront technical complications and delays with the bi-level rail car project that have forced us to evaluate the volume of work and the needs at our Rochelle facility,” the company said in a statement. “As a result, we have made the difficult decision to reduce our workforce.”

The project is funded by $551 million in federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. If the company cannot deliver on the contract by Sept 30, the funds revert back to the US Treasury.

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Secretary LaHood announcing the Amtrak railcar order at the Nippon Sharyo plant, where he said: ” thanks to a standardized design initiated by our Federal Railroad Administration…the parts and components for passenger rail cars and locomotives lowers the costs of production and improves competition. It also makes it easier and reduces costs for operators to maintain equipment.”

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Amtrak California was expecting to receive new railcars. Funded through the 2009 stimulus package, the new railcars were supposed to replace antiqued models, some of which date back to the 1970’s. But production is stalled, for the usual and predictable reasons; i.e. the strict Buy-America procurement rules, and trying to debug a unique train design:

The tight restrictions on when and where the stimulus money can be spent left Nippon Sharyo with almost no room for error with a car model that it hadn’t built before and a brand-new assembly plant 80 miles west of Chicago that cost $100 million.

Crashworthiness of passenger railcars has been a primary focus of car designers since collisions involving commuter and freight trains in Southern California killed 11 people in 2005 and 25 people in 2008. Nippon Sharyo’s car hasn’t been able to pass a federally mandated test for absorbing rear- and front-end compression force generated in a crash.

After repeated failures, engineers are now redesigning the car’s body shell. That and additional testing will take about two more years to complete, according to people familiar with the matter. The entire job was to be finished in 2018, with the stimulus-funded portion due for completion in 2017. Now, Nippon Sharyo isn’t expected to start production until 2018, people familiar with the work say.

Nippon Sharyo isn’t the only manufacturer running into these problems. Spain’s CAF is having similar issues:

Five years after winning a $343 million contract to build 130 long-distance railcars for Amtrak, Spain’s Construcciones & Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles SA is struggling to complete the order. The work was supposed to be completed by early 2015, but as of late last year the company’s CAF USA Inc. subsidiary had turned out 70 baggage carsfrom its plant in Elmira Heights, N.Y. Nearly 400 defects were identified in the first 28 baggage cars delivered, according to an Amtrak report issued in February. The work schedule has been renegotiated, with each delay pushing delivery dates further.

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Secretary LaHood announcing the Amtrak railcar order at the Nippon Sharyo plant, where he said: ” thanks to a standardized design initiated by our Federal Railroad Administration…the parts and components for passenger rail cars and locomotives lowers the costs of production and improves competition. It also makes it easier and reduces costs for operators to maintain equipment.”

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The FRA has just published its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for a two-person crew requirement. The original motivation for the rule was to ensure the safety of crude-oil trains; however, the FRA intends to apply the rule to all train types, including passenger trains.

The FRA apparently is unaware that train conductors have become an anachronism. Automation has eliminated the need for the second crewmember. These days, the conductor does nothing more than punch tickets. That task is much better handled by faregates, smartcards, or POP (proof-of-purchase) ticketing. Single-crew operation has an excellent safety record on non-FRA transit systems (such as BART, light-rail, etc). Since labor expenses make up a large portion of a transit system budget, the rule will have major impact on the budget for agencies like SMART and Caltrain (assuming they ever get their act together and eliminate the conductor position). Although the FRA suggests waivers might be possible, the rule will almost certainly reduce frequency of service.

The FRA concedes that there is no data to justify the 2-person rule (even for dangerous freight cargo). Moreover, the report admits that international operations with 1-person crews have “acceptable” safety records. The only beneficiaries of the rule is the United Transportation Union, which would see increased employment as a result of the rule.

 

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ticket_machine

 

 

 

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The Oxnard Derailment

On February 24th, a Metrolink train struck a pickup truck that was hauling an empty trailer. Normally such a collision would be no big deal. But in this instance, the train derailed spectacularly, with passenger cars strewn about. Dozens of passengers were injured and the train engineer was killed.

This scenario wasn’t supposed to happen. Metrolink had spared no expense in building new trains to meet the latest FRA safety specifications. The Hyundai-built train was equipped with crumple zones, and special couplers to keep trains aligned and upright in a derailment. None of these supposed safety features functioned as expected. An internal report blames shoddy workmanship:

The confidential report states that the manufacturer failed to meet design specifications that Metrolink required for cow-catchers on cab cars. The unmet specifications related to struts that extended into the car body and a requirement that cow-catchers be able to withstand a load of 100,000 pounds. The document noted that the specifications “may need to be more robust.”

In addition, the report stated that the cow-catcher had some poor welds and that other parts of the device “showed probable failure” despite extra brackets and good welding in other places. A photo attached to the report shows that the cow-catcher had broken off the cab car. Arrows point to four weld failures and areas where bolts were sheared off.

According to the report, a metallurgist found that one of the two failed couplers displayed evidence of a manufacturing defect known as porosity — a casting flaw that causes voids and bubbles to form in the metal.

Not to defend Hyundai, but the real problem isn’t poor quality control, but rather bad train design, and Buy-America trade-protectionism. There are any number of overseas manufacturers who could have sold Metrolink a service-proven trainset. But because Metrolink isn’t allowed to buy trains overseas, Hyundai had to create a whole new facility in the US, and set up a domestic parts stream. That is a complicated endeavor. And the trains themselves are of a custom design, largely dreamed up by government bureaucrats. It is no wonder the Metrolink train is defective.

The most distressing part of this fiasco, though, is the failed coupler. Most newer regional/commuter trains don’t even have couplers, because the world has moved on to articulated trains. Articulated trains have many benefits — one of which is that they are much less prone to jackknifing in derailments. But US rail planners continue to oppose the use of articulated trains, for truly baffling reasons.

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The customer is always right

When it comes to trainset procurement, the US is a bureaucratic and technological basketcase. Vendors have to navigate the byzantine Buy-America and FRA rules. You can get a sense of the dysfunction in the Questions-and-Answers submitted during the early stages of the bidding process for the new Acela rolling stock.

A number of questions regard the conflicting requirements. These trains are supposed to be “proven designs” and yet be made in America. Obviously both can’t be true. One vendor asks:

As the FRA will place unique requirements on this equipment, it would be helpful to provide an understanding of how much change will be permitted to a “Service Proven” design before it is no longer considered to be the same design.

Might a syntactic change be a way to get around this conundrum?

Because of the special requirement and constraint of Amtrak operating conditions…and Tier III compliance, a lot of design changes will be necessitated from the “Service Proven” equipment. Physical appearance might be different from the existing “Service Proven “equipment. As such, the requirement of service proven or a variant thereof should be read as “developed with proven technologies”.

Tier III compliance in this case means having to design around the ridiculous FRA buff strength requirement:

Due to the (not yet fully known) impact of the (not yet published) FRA Tier III requirements…it is likely that axle loads of “proven” equipment will exceed 17 tonne. The TSI permits operation of 18 tonne axles at speeds to within less than 5 mph of the maximum specified by Amtrak; consideration should be given to allowing this slight increase in speed over the limit set by the TSI.

The FRA denied that request, as well as two other requests to reduce the buff-strength requirement.

And then there is the problem for how to compute a price:

There are components which are not available in the US at the moment. How can we state the price to be made in the US? Shall we include an investment cost, technology transfer cost including patent? This requirement does not seem realistic.

So it would appear that the FRA learned nothing from the Acela-1 fiasco. The nonsensical design requirements will scare away bidders. With fewer bidders (plus the extreme cost of a full-custom trainset), the Acela-2 trains will probably be really expensive. Hopefully, Acela-2 won’t be as unreliable.

 

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As you may recall from last month, the disabled community was furious over plans to build plans to build a brand new Amtrak station in Roanoke (VA) without level-platform boarding. The VDOT was oblivious to an FRA rule that went into effect in 2012 requiring level-platform boarding at new stations, and are now in a bit of a pickle:

On Sept. 30, the Federal Railroad Administration told the project team that federal officials believe a raised platform that would permit level boarding, without the need for wheelchair lifts, is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The project team includes Amtrak, Norfolk Southern and the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The state has budgeted nearly $100 million for the project, about 10 percent of it for the platform and a related train servicing facility.

Jennifer Mitchell, who directs the department, said Oct. 21 the state prefers raised platforms and the level boarding they offer. But in Roanoke, “the site just won’t allow it,” she said.

The project team wants to build a low platform consisting of a concrete or asphalt slab near ground level. Riders would use a portable mechanical lift on the platform or stairs inside the car to board.

The state tried to argue that a high-level platform would obstruct freight traffic, even though the platform is on a siding. The FRA wasn’t convinced:

In late August, Amtrak, on behalf of the state, told regulators that Roanoke qualified for a waiver, saying freight traffic “exists directly adjacent to the platform” planned along Norfolk Avenue.

The request seemed to be based on a plan to install about 1,700 feet of track specifically for Amtrak service next to Norfolk Southern’s existing freight lines next year. The platform, to be built next, would sit beside it. Norfolk Southern has said the railroad intends to run freight trains over the platform track except when a passenger train is at the platform.

But the federal rail agency didn’t appear to buy the argument.

“We find that this is new construction of a platform track that diverges from the freight main,” the federal railroad agency said Sept. 30 in a position statement that remains unchanged. “Under these circumstances a level boarding platform is required.”

Virginia rail planners are still trying to pursue a waiver, and making threats that the project will be significantly delayed if it isn’t granted. However, the FRA rule is quite clear, and gross incompetence is no reason to grant a waiver.

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