Caltrain Gets Its FRA Waiver

May 28th, 2010 | Posted by

This is very good news, not just for Caltrain, not just for HSR, but for passenger rail as a whole in this country. From Mike Rosenberg’s article:

Caltrain officials have convinced federal safety authorities to allow quick European-style electric trains to zip from San Francisco to San Jose, a national first that paves the way for fast electric commuter and high-speed trains in the Bay Area and around the country.

Although common in Europe, the smaller electric trains are illegal in the United States because federal officials have long considered them too small, poorly designed and unsafe. But after three years of tests and research, Caltrain will become the first railroad in the nation to use the technology after being granted a waiver, a copy of which was obtained by the Bay Area News Group, on Thursday.

Caltrain will essentially be a pilot operation for the trains, called electric multiple units. If successful, commuter railroads and planned high-speed rail networks throughout the nation would have access to cheaper, greener and faster trains.

“People thought they could only get this level of service by having BART. This out-BART’s BART.” said Bob Doty, head of the joint Caltrain-high-speed rail program. “This tiny little streak of rust out here will be the first in the United States to allow mixed operations of service.”

The waiver allows all passenger trains, whether diesel or electric, to run on the same tracks. Freight locomotives can continue to operate in the wee hours while passenger trains are parked.

The importance of this waiver cannot be understated. Not only does this enable the Caltrain/HSR project to proceed, but it sets the stage for similar waivers that will be needed if track sharing is to happen on other segments of the route, particularly Los Angeles to Anaheim. The CHSRA will have to seek its own waiver, but the Caltrain waiver is a clear precedent that should help the CHSRA’s waiver succeed.

Hopefully this is the beginning of a long-overdue modernization of the FRA’s antiquated and obsolete rules on passenger trainsets on shared-use rails, rules that have cost rail agencies a lot of money and throttled the growth of ridership across the country.

I also want to single out Mike Rosenberg for treating the funding issue with the honesty and insight it deserves. In contrast to the State Auditor, which took a normal situation – project planning proceeding before all funding is identified – and made it sound like a huge crisis, Rosenberg properly explained the situation at the end of his article:

Money remains a major obstacle, with Caltrain still lacking 40 percent of its funding and high-speed rail lacking three-fourths. If the agencies can get the funding, the projects are expected to start in fall 2012 and finish later this decade.

That strikes me as a fair and accurate description of the situation. If the agencies get the funding, the project proceeds. If they don’t get the funding, the project doesn’t proceed. Simple as that.

I don’t understand why the State Auditor views this normal situation as somehow a problem. It happens all the time. For example, I chair the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee for the Transportation Agency of Monterey County. We have a bunch of projects that are in various stages of design, but lack funding. For example, for a long time we had planned to build a bike/ped bridge over the Salinas River, parallel to Highway 68, a key link between Monterey and Salinas. And TAMC had some funds available to build it, but lacked 100% financing. When it became clear the rest of the funding would not materialize, we had to shift what we did have to other projects. Other proposals sit on a shelf for lack of funds.

That’s also the case with the plans to widen Highway 156 between Prunedale and Castroville, or to have Highway 101 bypass Prunedale entirely, or to build light rail from Castroville to Monterey. All these are good ideas (except maybe for the Prunedale bypass, which is probably not worth the money), and they all currently lack funds. If they don’t get funded, they don’t happen. If they do get funded, they do happen. Simple situation.

With HSR, the same rule applies – but with an interesting twist. What money has come in the door – the $9 billion Prop 1A bond and the $2.25 billion in federal stimulus finds – has to be spent on things that can have “independent utility.” In the event that full funding does not materialize, the existing funding can either simply not be spent, or be spent on something that will provide lasting value even if the HSR project never comes to fruition.

If federal funding doesn’t materialize, Californians could always be asked to pony up more money to finish HSR themselves. I would doubt that would pass at the ballot box right now, but when gas prices resume their upward march, who knows, it could happen. In any event, Californians have a range of options open to them, but none of those realistically involve some kind of financial ruin for the state as a result of HSR, given the protections written into Prop 1A.

  1. Tony D.
    May 28th, 2010 at 15:52

    FRA waiver very good indeed (just read the article in the SJ Merc). OT: If no 101 Prunedale bypass Robert, can we at least get 101 upgraded to Freeway status between Salinas and south Gilroy? Can’t tell you how many near accidents I’ve seen on that stretch of road. Widening 156 between Prunedale and Castroville would be nice to.

  2. Alon Levy
    May 28th, 2010 at 16:31

    Remember that it’s only about three quarters of a success: the waivers are only for the anti-climbing and buff strength regulations, not for any of the other globally unique rules. While Kawasaki and Bombardier will happily modify trains based on those rules, it will cost more, and smaller vendors may not bother.

    Peter Reply:

    True, but those were the most egregious of the rules.

    What other unique rules would be extremely costly to comply with?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Little things like brake rules. They’re not bad by themselves, but they preclude using off-the-shelf trains. If the manufacturers had to develop a train from scratch, they might not add any cost. However, in reality they reuse ideas from previous designs; the extra hassle of adding some new features could add significant cost to a small order.

    The only FRA regulation that’s egregious to operations other than the weight penalty is the rule mandating a conductor on every train. But Caltrain has no intentions of dropping the conductors, FRA or not.

    Brandon from San Diego Reply:

    There is really no such thing as ‘off the shelf’ trains. Each is built to the specifications provided from the buyer. If operator A wants a certain type of brake as part of the design, the vendor will provide it. Of course, the price will be different. And lower is a possibility.

    If brakes is a good example of ‘little things’ I don’t see any significant barriers.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Intelligent buyers — those interested in reliability and cost — don’t pull such stunts.

  3. Rafael
    May 28th, 2010 at 16:40

    Caltrain owns its corridor and currently operates the vast majority of trains running on it. With freight banished to the wee hours to guarantee time separation, the “mixed” portion of the waiver really refers to new Caltrain EMUs sharing track with old Caltrain diesel trains for a transition period of several years.

    SCRRA owns the Orange County portion of Fullerton-San Diego (SDNR owns the San Diego county portion). This corridor is also mostly used for passenger trains operated by Amtrak California, Metrolink and NCTD, respectively. BNSF runs a few freight trains up from the car import terminal in National City (it owns the bit south of San Diego). SCRRA also owns the ROW from Redondo Junction up to Moorpark (Simi Valley) and the one to west Palmdale, but the critical section between Fullerton and Redondo Junction is BNSF’s and it carries a lot of freight traffic.

    BNSF has a very good track record of accommodating FRA-compliant passenger rail, but FRA’s waiver for Caltrain suggests that mixing heavy freight and non-compliant multiple unit passenger equipment will only be permitted with guaranteed time separation. BNSF needs to remain free to run its trains on the Transcon during all hours of the day and night, unlike the SF peninsula it’s actually one of the most important freight arteries in the country. That means neither Amtrak nor Metrolink would be permitted to operate non-compliant equipment on BNSF tracks between Redondo Junction and Fullerton.

    In addition, BNSF has indicated it simply cannot offer any additional trackage rights on the existing tracks anyhow because it needs the capacity. This is why OCTA’s program to increase Metrolink service frequency in Orange County is limited to Fullerton-San Niguel. In theory, Metrolink could leverage the Caltrain precedent to get a waiver of its own so it could operate this short line using non-compliant multiple unit rolling stock powered by diesel engines that meet the new EPA emissions standards. However, doing so would require the installation of PTC infrastructure on the line and on all locomotives or MUs that will be running on it. That implies also installing cab equipment into legacy Metrolink equipment serving Los Angeles-Oceanside plus all of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner loco’s plus all loco’s BNSF wants to run through OC south of its Transcon.

    Considering there’s no national technical standard for implementing PTC, these are non-trivial hurdles. The last thing the freight operators want is a patchwork of mutually incompatible technologies, all of which their locomotives must be equipped to handle. That’s part of the mess European rail operators are in, albeit for historical reasons. The new European ETCS standard is an overlay for legacy national signaling systems, but only some corridors have been upgraded to support it. Once you have a patchwork, harmonization is a long and expensive process.

    This is why CHSRA really ought to press Caltrain to abandon its CBOSS project and piggyback off the technology (probably ETCS plus ERTMS) that it will purchase and implement for the HSR network. Similarly, any plan to leverage the Caltrain waiver to mix HSR and FRA-compliant legacy passenger trains on just two tracks in the Fullerton-Anaheim section should be based on that same signaling technology. Even then, FRA still needs to approve that in the context of the much broader “rule of special applicability” for the HSR system as a whole (incl. electrification, 220mph top speed etc.)

    Fortunately, FRA had actually begun to write just such a rule for Florida HSR a few years ago. That will now be dusted off, re-evaluated and completed for that revived project. FRA will probably also want to apply some of the decisions it makes in that context to the California HSR project, in order to develop a set of national rules.

    That’s why it is now more urgent than ever that CHSRA ask the state legislature to fund a headcount for an “FRA regulator on site” for all things rail in California. That person would spend say, 75% of his/her time at CHSRA headquarters in Sacramento and share an office with a counterpart from the California Public Utilities Commission. Then and only then will California really be in the driving seat and get new FRA rules on PTC, mixed traffic and HSR written the way it wants them.

    Peter Reply:

    I don’t see how you can make the implication that the FRA would not permit mixing heavy freight with non-compliant trains. There was no need to request such mixing on the majority of the Caltrain corridor, hence the request was not made, and the FRA couldn’t grant a waiver that hadn’t been requested.

    I think it would be prudent to wait for the waiver to be available for the general public to read before we make such assertions.

    Rafael Reply:

    My understanding is that UPRR is currently permitted to perform certain yard shifting operations in the a time window in the afternoon, e.g. aggregating freight from customers in the SF region at the yard in south SF. That’s because Caltrain currently operates as a commuter railway with only light service outside of rush hour.

    We will have to wait for the details, but the way I read the waiver request was that any and all freight operations would be permitted at night only. To some extent, that’s because Caltrain wants the option of increasing off-peak service frequency during the day.

    Nadia Reply:

    @Raphael – Besides having an FRA regulator on site, shouldn’t the Obama administration be considering setting some national standards for things like PTC and platform heights? It is my understanding they have purposely not promoted a standard to date given that they didn’t want to pre-select a particular technology, etc. However, given the national rail plan, wouldn’t it behoove the FRA and the Administration to help set some standards so that one day all the trains could connect?! Besides the obvious leveraging of costs, etc.

    Rafael Reply:

    After the Metrolink disaster in Chatsworth, Congress decided to include a requirement to implement PTC in busy rail corridors (and any used for transporting hazardous goods) nationwide in H.R. 2095-110th (aka PRIIA). That bill also provided fresh subsidies for Amtrak, redefined HSR to mean 110mph rather than 90 and, allocated $1.5 billion in funds for HSR projects. It was passed in October of 2008, just before the election and signed into law by Pres. Bush. The $8 billion in the H.R.1-111th (aka ARRA) came on top of that.

    What PRIIA did not do was provide adequate funding for PTC because Congress wants the private railroads to pay for it. The quid pro quo is that that they, not the FRA, get to define the technical standard. They are currently working on just that definition via AREMA, their technical standards co-op. However, given the huge size of the rail network in the US and the thin profit margins on hauling stuff at the lowest-cost-per-ton, the emphasis will be on minimizing investments in trackside infrastructure.

    Instead, the ambition is to leverage GPS plus modern wireless communication technology to let HQ monitor the locations of all trains on the lines that must be upgraded. IFF that communication is extremely reliable, changes can be limited to new in-cab equipment that is also tied in to the controls for the accelerator and brakes. Only then will it be possible to automatically override the train engineer in the event of human error, e.g. running a red light.

    ETCS level 2 is based on the GSM-R cellular telephony standard to sharply reduce the implementation cost relative to the wireline ETCS 1. This was a demand from northern European operators that had already developed and installed their own wireline PTC systems at great expense and didn’t want to pay the full whack yet again to implement a European overlay standard. Indeed, the long-term goal for ETCS is to abandon the legacy wireline systems altogether because they have to be maintained.

    CHSRA is likely to select ETCS level 2 because that’s what the HSR train and infrastructure vendors can deliver off-the-shelf. In the context of a $45 billion mega-project, the cost of installing GSM-R base stations is justified, especially if those are also used to mechanically support separate 4G transponders so passengers can enjoy reliable broadband internet access during their journey. That said, the more expensive but bulletproof wireline ETCS level 1 (or the Japanese ATC or the ATCS system already installed in the NEC) is also a viable option in this context.

    The freight companies will probably want to avoid setting up a private cell phone network, so even ETCS level 2 looks expensive to them. Instead, they could end up joining forces to buy bandwidth on multiple third-party cell phone and/or satellite networks (for redundancy). The big question is if such an arrangement could ever be made reliable enough to support PTC operations. In effect, the railroads would be outsourcing part of what ought to be a core competency: train control.

    anonymouse Reply:

    What do you mean by “wireline”? ETCS Level 2 relies on track circuits or axle counters for train detection. It uses GSM-R to transmit movement authorities to trains, where Level 1 uses active balises on the track.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    and the gsm-r base stations are connected to the control center by wires or their equivalents.

    Peter Reply:

    I think there may be ethical issues with such arrangements. As we have recently seen with Minerals Management (great going, BP), and earlier with the FAA (American and Southwest Airlines, anyone?) independence of the regulatory body is of utmost importance to ensuring that the agency fulfills its regulatory duties.

    thatbruce Reply:

    It would be a federal-level regulator working with a state-level regulator, not a special interest group.

    rafael Reply:

    Exactly, FRA and CPUC should simultaneously draft compatible rules on HSR. The best way to ensure they do is for the individuals doing the work to collaborate as closely as possible, ideally in the same room.

    CHSRA is also a state agency, but it would be the one being regulated. For appearances’ sake, it might be necessary for the two regulators to be in a separate building. In terms of funding, the California legislature would appropriate a small amount of prop 1A funds for a contract with FRA to hire a suitable person and assign him to work on federal rail safety issues raised by the various projects in California. Of course, I’m not suggesting that this person report to the CHSRA staff or board. He/she would report to FRA management in Washington, D.C.

  4. D. P. Lubic
    May 28th, 2010 at 18:46

    I’ve been reading the comments about the auditor. I am an auditor myself, and the field is not particularly creative–but in this case, I think that’s not a bad thing, compared with the benefits of “creative accounting” and “financial engineering” we have received from Wall Street recently. However, I can’t help but wonder if the state auditor is from my “difficult, in-beteen age group,” in this case, not necessarily being against rail, but is just terribly unfamiliar with it, and it makes him nervous.

    Someone needs to give him some councilling, and maybe a mood pill!

  5. Nadia
    May 28th, 2010 at 19:23

    OT: Mountain View favors a trench

    Joey Reply:

    No surprise there. A trench might be complicated by Sevens Creek though…

    Rafael Reply:

    True, but then again, the fully elevated alternative would be complicated by the existing Shoreline, CA-85, Whisman and CA-237 overpasses and the desire to accommodate UPRR. A split grade solution for both HSR and Caltrain/HSR at Castro would make it a lot easier to return back to grade north of Stevens Creek ped/bike bridge, perhaps even south of Shoreline. It would, however, imply lowering the Castro/Central intersection or else, grade separating that as well. The latter outcome could also be achieved with a deep underpass that would leave all four heavy rail tracks at grade.

    However, in both the split grade and deep underpass scenarios, the VTA light rail platforms would need to be stacked on top of them or else put underground. There isn’t enough lateral space for six tracks plus platforms for both Caltrain and VTA at Castro. Track stacking VTA is technically feasible because light rail vehicles can negotiate far steeper gradients than either HSR or Caltrain, never mind UPRR.

    Despite all the focus on the Castro and Rengstorff intersections, an arguably even bigger problem looms at CA-85 and Whisman. The overpass supports there severely limit the horizontal space available for Central + rail tracks + W Evelyn. It’s not feasible to simply eliminate the road medians at these two choke points. There are currently just three rail tracks in the section and, there’s simply no room for five tracks side-by-side. Even four wouldn’t be possible without impacts to one or both frontage roads, which is precisely why VTA is single-tracked there. Stevens Creek runs underground immediately north of the freeway. The bike/ped bridge above it doesn’t present a particular problem, given the freeway overpass must anyhow be preserved. VTA’s Evelyn station just south of it doesn’t help matters at all.

    The space constraint becomes slightly less gnarly for 237 because VTA veers north toward Moffett Field north of that overpass. Still, it’s not immediately clear that there’s enough room for four tracks there, either. Again, the issue is the overpass supports, which cannot be moved.

    IMHO, it is these technical considerations south of Castro, rather than the grade separation of Castro itself, that should inform the vertical alignment decision. As long as CHSRA insists on dedicated HSR tracks, I don’t think there’s really any viable option other than putting them underground between Castro and 237. They could end up under Central, under VTA/Caltrain/UPRR or under Evelyn. In any event, Stevens Creek will be a major headache unless CHSRA decides to bore under it. If so, it might be possible to combine that with a split grade separation for Caltrain/UPRR. The HSR tracks might be at a gradient at the Caltrain station, but that’s not a problem unless CHSRA selects Mtn View as the mid-peninsula station.

    Otherwise, a trench is probably the best technical solution to preserve the Castro crossing and intersection with Central. North of there, ramps from Alma/Central up to the San Antonio overpass preclude the construction of four tracks at grade. Given the short distance between Rengstorff, San Antonio, the grade separation strategy for them should probably be conflated. The cost of extending the trench and dealing with at least one additional creek/storm drain has to be weighed against converting San Antonio from a tall overpass into either a deep underpass or a split grade solution, with impacts on its connectivity to Central.

    Joey Reply:


    Joey Reply:


    Rafael Reply:

    I’m aware of Clem’s post. What his vertical profile doesn’t show is that there’s not enough horizontal space in the section from 85 to 237 to keep HSR at the same elevation as Caltrain/UPRR + VTA. Because of the freeway overpasses, at least two of the five tracks must be at a different level there, unless one of the roads goes underground – which would mess with the freeway ramps and connectors to Whisman as well as access to businesses (if Evelyn were affected).

    The least disruptive alternative would probably involve HSR diving underneath Stevens Creek at ~45 feet above MSL and climb back to 65 so construction can switch from underground excavation to the cheaper cut-and-cover method through 237. Tracks would re-emerge south of Bernardo. On the other end, this strategy implies letting HSR cross Castro in a trench.

    That in turn implies letting Caltrain/HSR cross Castro in a trench as well. Climbing back to grade north of Stevens Creek isn’t feasible for UPRR, therefore these tracks will probably need to dive under it as well in a tunnel. At 1% gradient, it would take nearly a mile to gain the 50 feet needed to return to grade at 90 feet above MSL, i.e. near Bernardo. The southern portal of this tunnel, which would be separate from the one for HSR, would be just north of Whisman. Alternatively, the 1% gradient section could be shifted south a little bit if VTA wants to add a second track at grade.

    The larger point here is that all the action at Castro needs to be driven by lateral and hydrological constraints at Stevens Creek/CA 85, not whatever concerns city officials have about the impact on their business district. Happily, they appear to have independently arrived at a compatible preference.

    Rafael Reply:

    I suppose there is one other option: run Caltrain/UPRR at or just below grade, put HSR in a trench and convert Castro/Moffett to an overpass without connection to Central. An Evelyn/Moffett curved overpass would also be possible. Have Caltrain/UPRR cross over Stevens Creek, though not necessarily at grade.

    dejv Reply:

    ETCS level 2 is based on the GSM-R cellular telephony standard to sharply reduce the implementation cost relative to the wireline ETCS 1.

    The nice thing about L1 is that actually requires less new wires to install on legacy lines, ’cause LEUs are wired to signals, “read” their aspects and convert it to message transmitted by balise train. L2 is obvious choice for most new lines, but L1 with Euroloops still has some advantage at locations with extremely high density of driving vehicles.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    Figure out how you CARRD wil also pay for a trench

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    I know this would be sacreligious in Califonia, how about a special property tax assessment. Low near the tracks and higher as you get away from them. Low near the tracks because those people actually are affected by the trains. High far away from the tracks because if the trains are such a terrible thing that far away from the track those people should be willing to pay more.

    Samsonian Reply:

    Normally special property tax assessments are used to fund infrastructure projects like these, because they increase property values.

    Some countries use similar land value capture so passenger railways can be self financed, even including capital costs.

    Rafael Reply:

    In this case, I think CHSRA has no choice but to trench at Castro anyhow (see my discussion with Joey), so it would have to pay for that one.

    Whether or not Rengstorff should be crossed in a trench as well is a separate issue. Nearby Permanente Creek and the solution for quad tracking at the San Antonio overpass should factor into that decision.

    As a general rule, CHSRA should pay for a trench if that is the most appropriate solution based on available lateral space, crossing creeks or maintaining essential road connectivity. If the technical analysis shows that a trench is feasible but more expensive than an also feasible alignment at or above grade, then the community would need to fund the delta if it really wants the tracks below ground.

    mike Reply:

    The argument of all of the Peninsula cities is that these tunnels and trenches *will* increase their property values, because active railroads cause horrible blight and divide their cities. Thus the special property tax assessments would make sense…at least according to their arguments.

    rafael Reply:

    True, this is why Berkeley decided to bite the bullet and put BART underground in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the sums involved in trenching or tunneling in the SF peninsula today are fairly astronomical, especially for four tracks – hundreds of millions per mile. CHSRA’s would contribute the fraction that a feasible and reasonable above-ground alignment would cost, but the delta would still be very high. For example, Palo Alto has about 60,000 inhabitants and many can only just afford their sky-high mortgages and local property taxes (to fund the good schools that keep the real estate values high).

    Arguably, only homes very close to the rail line might suffer any decline in real estate values due to the visual impact of an elevated structure. In terms of noise, Caltrain’s and UPRR’s blaring horns don’t appear to have blighted places like downtown Palo Alto at all, many houses there last changed hands for close to a million dollars (or more). HSR and Caltrain’s EMU project will increase the number of noise events, but all-but-eliminating horn noise plus possibly, sound walls mean the sound exposure level (SEL) near the rail ROW should not get much worse. It might even improve, CHSRA has yet to produce reproducible data.

    For all these reasons, most residents of the peninsula will not benefit more from a trench or tunnel than they would from an elevated structure – even if their children attend a school near the tracks. The biggest benefit is the safety and time savings that come with grade separation. I doubt they have much of an appetite to tax themselves heavily for a gold plated solution.

    And as always, caveat emptor applies. If you buy property next to an active rail line, the default assumption is that the risk of future construction and increases in rail traffic volume was factored into the transaction price.

  6. swing hanger
    May 28th, 2010 at 19:34

    “Although common in Europe, the smaller electric trains are illegal in the United States because federal officials have long considered them too small, poorly designed and unsafe.”

    Am I the only one that finds this wording to be rather inflammatory (and laughable)? Perhaps it’s just ignorance or an unfortunate choice of words on the part of the writer, but if FRA officials really think this way, they need to get out more and see the world. Well, at least they made a good move in this case.

    Rafael Reply:

    “Although common in Europe, the smaller electric trains are illegal in the United States because federal officials have long considered them too small, poorly designed and unsafe to share track with minimally maintained US-style heavy freight trains on minimally maintained lines that have no PTC signaling because the private companies that own and operate them are too cheap to pay for it.”

    Italics mine. Remember, FRA might as well stand for Freight Rail Authority. Congress did finally mandate in late 2008 that PTC must be implemented on busy lines and those used for transporting hazardous materials by 2015, but it’s a largely unfunded mandate and FRA was not given any authority to define the requisite technical standard(s).

  7. HSRComingSoon
    May 28th, 2010 at 19:54

    Congrats, Caltrain. Get the EMU’s rollin’! In other news, the Authority has posted materials for the upcoming Board meeting. Included is a document on a shared corridor between LA and Anaheim. This would seem to be germane to the shared corridor for HSR/Caltrain. Link:

    Other posted materials:

    Spokker Reply:

    Sounds like a best-case scenario. Southwest Chief and the Metrolink 91 line remain on the three BNSF tracks (because they are coming from the Inland Empire). Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink 91 Line and HSR will share tracks but will use separate platforms.

    frozen Reply:

    I think you meant the OC Line on the separate platforms away from the BNSF side, correct?

    I also wonder if its possible to convert Pacific Surfliner to EMUs down the road? Or would San Juan Capistrano throw a hissy fit?

    Rafael Reply:

    The mixed traffic waiver relates primarily to crash safety. In principle, its logic could apply to non-compliant diesel multiple unit equipment as well, though FRA would probably require additional tests to prove fire/spill safety. This is not as onerous as it sounds because (a) the manufacturers alreacy meet UIC crash specs and (b) the fuel can be stored in cars other than those at the end.

    Cp. NCTD Sprinter between Escondido and Oceanside.

    However, Amtrak PS couldn’t even begin to cut over its fleet until PTC was implemented along its entire route, i.e. from San Luis Obispo all the to San Diego. Similarly, Metrolink could only operate non-compliant DMUs on lines that feature PTC throughout.

    Bottom line: all of these various railroads need to agree to a single technical standard for PTC and then commit to implementing it before the Caltrain waiver could have any real significance for SoCal.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    It’s possible to run trains with sophisticated signal equipment on lines that don’t have the sophisticated signal equipment. It’s also possible to run trains with two signal systems or three or four, I think there’s a line in Europe where certain trains have 7 systems. It’s possible but stupid if you are starting from scratch. The Class I railroads realize this. They interchange equipment all the time. They are slowly but surely working towards one standard. It’s unfortunate that they haven’t moved at the speed you would prefer but they are doing it.

    anonymouse Reply:

    And of course there are FRA-compliant EMUs. Brand new ones even, in Philadelphia and New Haven.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Shh. we aren’t supposed to mention places where they have those new fangled electric trains that go to stations with level boarding, the same stations that are used by diesel trains and where friegt trains pass through.

    Joey Reply:

    Yes, but, for a number of reasons, FRA compliant is generally not the way you want to go unless you have no other options.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Why would they need separate platforms?

    rafael Reply:

    Different platform heights. A dedicated passenger line can support level boarding because California Public Utilities Commission General Order 26D doesn’t apply. When it was written in 1948, freight trains still had men hanging off the sides of cars, a high platform close to the tracks would mangle them.

    Of course, for Spokker’s idea to work, all of the railroads using this dedicated passenger line would have to use rolling stock with the same floor level above top of rail. At every station along every route that includes this new line. If a given route (e.g. Pacific Surfliner) contains any stations on tracks that carry freight trains, GO-26D applies and level boarding there requires retractable drawbridges or similar nonsense.

    The irony is that the freight rail operators don’t actually have people hanging off the sides of rail cars on the main lines any longer (maybe in a freight yard, but there are no passenger trains there). The only reason GO-26D still exists is because companies like UPRR quite like the idea of making passenger rail as unattractive as possible and CPUC is a compliant regulator.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    You’re able to confect elaborate multi level plans for suburban stations on the Peninsula but can’t conceive of gauntlet tracks or maybe even platform sidings… Hmmm or even more radical having the regulations changed. Hmmm.

    Currently Amfleet cars can go anywhere in North America. They do. Along creaky old lines where the platform is a patch of asphalt by the side of the tracks and into places like Penn Station in New York or Union Station in Washington DC where those scary electric locomotives using advanced signaling systems have been hauling around at speeds in excess of 100 MPH. . . it must be the Hetch Hetchy water or the palm trees or something.

    Rafael Reply:

    Sidings require a lot of space, which is often not available at California stations. Exercising eminent domain for public transit – as opposed to freight rail – is a very hot potato, politically speaking.

    Gauntlet tracks would work, but why install, operate and maintain two turnouts just to uphold an antiquated rule that doesn’t reflect modern-day freight railroad practice?

  8. TomW
    May 31st, 2010 at 11:00

    “federal officials have long considered [European-style EMUs] too small, poorly designed and unsafe”
    That would be hilarious if it wasn’t actually worrying that the FRA considers rolling stock built to its antiquated rules to be safer than modern European trains. The FAR seems to think strength can only come through weight, rather than through (40-year old) ideas such as all-welded monocoque construction. In the UK, new multiple units have beeen required to have anti-climb features for the last 20 years.

    If a train crashes, deaths and seroius injuries if the following occur:
    1) the train remains upright (remaining coupled together is the biggest help here)
    2) the body doesn’t deform (which means welded monocoques)
    3) the windows remain intact (which means laminate glass)

    Rafael Reply:

    You’re missing the point. The FRA has hitherto written its rules on the basis of what the freight rail industry wanted, i.e. avoiding signaling upgrades and discouraging passenger rail on its network. The present administration is enthusiastic about passenger rail, so FRA looked favorably on the evidence Caltrain provided (chiefly, computer simulations of grade crossing accidents) for its waiver.

    I don’t think the folks at FRA are ignorant of the reality of rail operations overseas. It’s just that most of the US rail grid is privately owned and those owners have to pay property taxes. Its job is to move bulk goods and shipping containers around the nation’s vast interior. In Europe, the major railways were all nationalized decades ago and receive subsidies to operate passenger trains as a public service, incl. investments in expensive modern signaling, rolling stock etc. Freight is a secondary consideration in European rail operations because most bulk goods are transported on ships and barges. Time-sensitive high-value goods are trucked, so that only leaves the shrinking intermediate market.

    Part of the problem is historical, national railways long made their technical standards deliberately incompatible to deny an invading army use of their network. EU-led harmonization efforts are slowly but surely making cross-border traffic easier. In addition, the EU is co-ordinating investments in new rail infrastructure such as base tunnels and upgrades/expansion of the network to facilitate intermodal shipping across medium distances. Switzerland is not an EU member but is surrounded by countries that are, so it is also constructing base tunnels through the alps in a strategic effort to keep the relentless growth in cross-border trucking from completely congesting its motorways.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Your criticism of FRA regulations may be correct today, but it’s historically wrong. In the 1930s and 40s, the FRA was trying to force the railroads to install PTC. Many of the regulations that hampered passenger rail, including the buff strength and 79 mph rules, were intended to make the railroads install PTC, not slow down operations and make them more expensive.

    rafael Reply:

    IIRC, the FRA didn’t exist until 1966. Perhaps you are referring to its predecessor, the USRA. Either way, the role of regulators – or at least their behavior in the real world – changed along with the fortunes of the industry. In particular, PTC implementation to world over is driven by concerns for passenger safety. If you’re a private for-profit freight-only railway, the easiest way to postpone the expense is to gradually co-opt both Congress and your regulatory agency.

    Even so, freight majors like UPRR are perhaps less worried about the direct cost of PTC than about the general resurgence of passenger rail on their networks and/or ROWs that will entail. Publicly, they’re firm but polite about the unfunded Congressional mandate in PRIIA. Privately, I suspect they’re anything but thrilled – some even less so than others.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Whoa, we need to chill a bit here.

    I see a number of comments by people who are very passionate about passenger rail (and are to be commended greatly for this, how I wish I had people like you as neighbors!), but I fear some are not as well versed in rail technology and history as might be useful.

    First, I’ll mention that the original safety regulators in the rail industry were also its rate regulators, the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was the very first independent agency of the Federal Government, going back to 1887, and only being abolished in 1995. A bit of reading on it is here:

    The Commission was best known for its rate authority, which lead to criticisms about slow decisions about rates and mergers, and was part of the reason for its eventual dismemberment. Among the more notorious cases were those involving unit train rate discounts, including discounts on the use of larger than normal grain hoppers (the pioneers were Southern Railway’s “Big John” cars, which carried over 100 tons per car when a 50-ton car was much more common); the arguments in the case were that the technological advantage of Southern’s big cars, combined with the discount effect of multiple car shipments on wheat, would have adverse impacts on competition (translation, some grain millers who couldn’t or wouldn’t handle such cars stood to loose business, and the truckers and even other railroads had the same complaint). I know, this sounds strange in today’s unregulated market, but that’s the way it used to be.

    There have been other comments about buff strength. The original standards for that came from the US Post Office. Traditionally, mail cars ran as “head end” cars, along with express and baggage cars, which put them right behinc a locomotive. If you were a mail clerik, being sandwiched between a heavy locomotive and the heavy train behind your own mail car was not a good place to be if the train were to hit anything really solid, or even going into a high-speed derailment. The original buff strength standars thus came in the interest of protecting postal employees. Of course, once established, it made sense for everything to be built to the same standard.

    One or two of you have mentioned coming from a pure mathematical background. I greatly appreciate such interest, and it often leads to insights that can make important changes. However, I also strongly recommend some semi-technical reading on railroad history and technology. Railroaders were and are practical people, dealing with the real world. It is said that their operating rulebooks are not written in ink, but in blood. There is usually a very good reason for everything in them, including concerns about station platforms. A knowledge of what these people deal with can also be useful in dealing with them; you will be able to “speak their language,” and might even do it better than they can.

    We’ll start with book titles; this is a personal list, you may wish to add to it or modify it.

    “The American Railroad Passenger Car,” by John H. White, is a technical history of the passenger car from the beginning to about 1976 or so; Mr. White used to be the curator of the Museum of Transportation in the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History and Technology.

    Mr. White also wrote “The American Railroad Freight Car,” which covers freight car development from the beginning to the dawn of the steel car era in about 1912. This book is useful becaus Mr. White also goes into classic railroad operations, which pioneered many safety practices and principles that are still valid today.

    I also recommend “The Steam Locomotive,” by Ralph Johnson. Mr. Johnson was the chief locomotive designer for the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia; in designing locomotives of any kind, you also need to know what the locomotive is being asked to do. Things like train resistance, with all the variables that influence that, are important to know. There is a great deal about this subject in the book; you may find it outdated by being very conservative in some aspects (for instance, in calculating wind resistance, Mr. Johnson assumes the front of the locomotive is a flat surface with an area of about 100 square feet–and if you think of what a non-streamlined steam locomotive looks like you can see where this comes from), but by the same token, being conservative can help prevent unpleasant surprises.

    An excellent overview of railroads and railroad operation is in John Armstrong’s “The Railroad–What It Is, What It Does.”

    Finally, I have some links here that may be useful as references.


    A P.S.: Railroad men are, I fear, subject to the same generational influences as the general public. Despite having the most efficient means of transportation available, they can be handicapped thinking that passenger service is a waste of time and resources. Not all think like that, but enough of the senior management does–and guess how old the senior management is? Right, they are in that “difficult, in-between age” that thinks the public has permanently abandoned them. . .in their cases though, you may want to be somewhat sympathetic, their industry really got beat up by oversupport for the highway system.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The point many of us are making about the buff strength rules is that they’re entirely ex recto. The simulations Caltrain used to get its waiver show how non-compliant cars perform as well as or better than compliant cars in crashes, except in one narrow set of circumstances (namely, at relative speeds of 15-25 mph, in a leading cab car). The car immediately behind the locomotive does not care whether the locomotive is compliant or not. In fact, the most crippling FRA standards are only for leading cars (locomotives, cab cars, or leading MUs), not for intermediate cars. The gallery cars used in the US are heavier than European EMUs, but not by that much.

    Many other FRA regulations were not quite as factless, but were instead based on faulty experiments. For example: the FRA only permits 3″ of cant deficiency without tilting or a waiver. This is because of passenger comfort experiments done in the 1950s with trains whose suspension system was bad. Using the more usual passenger trains of the era would have made it clear that 5″ was safe and comfortable; nowadays, lightweight non-tilting passenger trains do 6″. However, the FRA has not relented, believing that 60-year-old experiments that haven’t been replicated trump more recent findings. Effectively, it’s writing not-invented-here into law.

  9. dejv
    May 31st, 2010 at 12:27

    Outside coastal areas and very few major rivers, share of river transportation is roughly zero. For example, Rhein-Main-Donau Kanal carries similar amount of traffic to moderately trafficked railway mainline.

    Part of the problem is historical, national railways long made their technical standards deliberately incompatible to deny an invading army use of their network

    This applied to Russia only. The rest of European network was interoperable enough to be invaded by foreign army ever since first railway companies met and they had to agree on common buffer positions, brake system etc. The real incompatibilities proliferated with advent of advanced signalling since mid-20th century, accelerated by protectionism, NIH syndrome and different environment.

    rafael Reply:

    Right, but in Europe, businesses that consume bulk goods (such as coal-fired power plants) tend to be sited next to a navigable channel if at all possible. A lot of coal mines have been depleted, so most of what is burnt in Western Europe is imported at a harbor.

    Btw, Spain and Portugal also have legacy rail networks with non-standard gauges, for the reasons I mentioned. But fair enough, I did overgeneralize a bit.

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