Review of Yesterday’s FRA Meeting in Sacramento
Thanks to Matt Melzer for attending and compiling these notes (with help from Ryan Stern) from yesterday’s FRA meeting in Sacramento on high speed rail. Lots to chew over here! -Robert
Besides presentations from the feds, there was one from Amtrak’s VP Policy and Development, Stephen Gardner, who emphasized that Amtrak wants to be THE national HSR operator. He also said that expanding state partnerships is “Amtrak’s future.”
Will Kempton, Mehdi Morshed, and Bill Bronte acted as the regional presenters, making the public case for California to receive stimulus funds based on the obvious success and maturity of California’s passenger rail programs. Their PowerPoint also had nice maps showing CAHSR integrated with each existing Amtrak California corridor, as well as all three. Yet, there was no illustration of long-distance routes, regional rail systems, or Thruway motorcoach connections. So the visualization severely minimized the true reach of the state passenger rail network.
The Surfliner route north of LA looked like an errant finger, with San Luis Obispo positively orphaned. This, of course, has no relation to reality, with the existing Thruway connections to Hanford and the Bay Area, as well as the Coast Starlight and the future Coast Daylight. It’s this lack of emphasis on statewide connections on the part of the HSRA that leads to situations like Pete Rodgers of SLOCOG opposing Prop 1A supposedly because he didn’t think there was anything in it for SLO. Even if the $950 million for feeder rail and transit improvements didn’t exist, he’d still be wrong.
After their presentation giving an overview of the federal HSR Strategic Plan and Next Steps (to which I’ll refer readers to previous posts regarding details), Karen Rae (FRA Deputy Administrator), Paul Nissenbaum (FRA Director, Office of Passenger and Freight Programs) and Gardner engaged in Q&A. Some of the juicier questions:
Representative of LA County MTA: With the billions of dollars LA County voters approved for new transit projects in Measure R, why can’t MTA use future HSR connectivity benefits as part of cost-effectiveness calculations for FTA New Starts applications? Why aren’t FTA’s criteria more holistic?
Rae: “We’ve talked more with FTA in the past 6 months than [we probably did] in the past 15 years.” FRA and FTA are aware of such issues and will discuss them more moving forward.
Jason Lee, San Francisco MTA: With so much focus on cost, won’t HSR grant applicants cut corners and shy away from key projects like the $1 billion Transbay extension?
Rae: We’re “struggling” with how to handle such megaprojects, of which there are many across all modes, that demand huge resources concentrated in very small project areas. Some of these issues could be addressed in the transportation reauthorization bill. Criteria for numerous federal transportation grant programs could conceivably evolve.
Representative of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers: Union Pacific is grappling with Positive Train Control, which system is best, and how to implement it. Shouldn’t the feds lead the charge for one interconnected PTC system?
Rae: FRA and the Rail Safety Advisory Committee are working to support the federally-mandated effort for a national PTC standard. We hope that PTC will be as interoperable as other standard railroad equipment.
Gardner: Interoperability is in the law (S.294, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act [PRIIA], the Amtrak/passenger rail reauthorization and rail safety bill that passed last year). Train control will be a critical issue as we develop corridors that exceed 79 mph.
IBEW Rep.: UP gave the impression that they didn’t know about the interoperability requirement!
Paul Dyson, President, Rail Passenger Association of California and SW Division Leader, National Association of Railroad Passengers [Disclaimer: I, Matt, serve under Paul on the NARP Council]: There’s a lot of talk of partnerships today. Look at the three providers of passenger rail in Southern California: Amtrak, Metrolink, and Coaster are crummy partners [along the Surfliner route], with passenger-unfriendly schedule coordination. Who’s to say states like Arizona or Nevada would ever be willing to work with California as regional “partners” in HSR development, as FRA is encouraging states within regions to do?
Rae: “It is not an easy conversation.” But there’s nothing like competitive grants to provide an impetus for partnership. “There’s not nearly enough money to go around,” but best practices in multi-state compacts will emerge from this process.
Representative of Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen: Amtrak is mandated to be profitable; will HSR operations be?
Nissenbaum: Capital subsidies will be required, but it’s the responsibility of applicants to account for operating expenses. Amtrak or other operators will seek assurances so that they’re not exposed to any risk of operating losses.
Gardner: The profitability clause is gone from Amtrak’s mission due to PRIIA, which did stipulate that Amtrak must still minimize the need for federal coverage of their operating losses. States must also cover the losses of any new services.
Rich Tolmach of California Rail Foundation (and plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking to invalidate CHSRA’s EIR): Will the same FRA safety standards still apply to new high-speed equipment?
Nissenbaum: Absolutely, yes. We will need to create new standards for equipment that operates about 150 mph, since they don’t currently exist.
Rae: FRA Administrator Joe Szabo isn’t here today because he’s touring European HSR equipment, seeing how they achieve both efficiency and safety.
Ryan Stern, State Representative, National Association of Railroad Passengers: Given the moribund state of the domestic passenger rail supply industry, how do we create an environment that allows for ongoing production of rolling stock, so that cars can be purchased quickly and affordably?
Gardner: This falls under the work of the PRIIA-mandated Next Generation Corridor Equipment Pool Committee [which is developing national standards for various types of passenger rail cars]. But we do have to live in the world we have now.
Rae: The White House is in active talks with our domestic industrial manufacturers to retool underutilized production capacity.
Matthew George, Caltrans: Do Amtrak’s agreements with host railroads provide for HSR?
Gardner: They apply at any speed, hypothetically. But we’ll work collaboratively with our partners and not just “show up” with high-speed passenger trains intermingling with slow freights.
George: How much can you rely on those agreements?
Nissenbaum: You can’t; there must be operational agreements specific to each service. But “master agreements” can be a starting point.
Beverly Mason, AECOM: What is FRA’s policy on adapting European and Asian HSR trains to domestic use?
Rae: “We will not compromise our safety record.” But new technologies are being explored. Sealed HSR systems especially could support more exotic equipment.
Lastly, there was one hour of breakout groups to address the following three sets of questions, which we randomly called upon share with the whole audience at the end. At least a good 60 percent of attendees stayed for this, whereas crowds had apparently thinned considerably in other cities’ workshops. Rae emphasized that FRA is taking all feedback seriously, since the entire national HSR effort is a nascent work-in-progress. The questions were:
1. What does success from a national perspective look like in 2 years, 5 years, and 10 years? How do we measure success?
2. What factors are critical for implementation of the program? What is the role of the federal government, states, and others?
3. What does your region need to succeed, in the short or long run?
All groups wrote their ideas on worksheets, which were ultimately collected. The FRA is expected to make the presentations given at the meeting available on the web “at some point in the future.”