Caltrain Gets Its FRA Waiver
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.