President Obama Plans to Streamline HSR Approvals

Sep 21st, 2012 | Posted by

Just one day after the FRA announced it had given its final approval to the Merced to Fresno high speed rail segment comes big news that President Obama will announce a streamlined review for the Fresno to Bakersfield high speed rail section:

President Obama, flanked by Vice President Biden and Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood

As part of his “We Can’t Wait” initiative to speed development of major transportation projects, the president is directing the Federal Railroad Administration to finish its environmental review of the 114-mile section by October 2013. That, according to a White House statement, could shave as much as six months off the process, “enabling the project to meet funding deadlines and an aggressive construction schedule.”

The announcement comes just two days after the FRA announced its approval of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s environmental review and route selection for another section of the project — the Merced-to-Fresno portion. The FRA approval came nearly five months after the state authority’s board finished its work on the environmental review….

Comments from this round, and planners’ responses or changes, will be wrapped into a final version of the report that may be considered by the state rail authority’s board in early 2013. Today’s announcement by Obama appears aimed at ensuring that FRA follows suit with its decision-making in a timely fashion.

The president is also announcing today a similar directive for the Federal Transit Administration to speed up its permit and review decisions for expansion of the downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal to July 2014.

This doesn’t mean that state or federal environmental rules will be bypassed, but that the process of going through those reviews will be expedited. Here’s how Michael Cabanatuan of the SF Chronicle explains it:

Federal officials plan to speed approval through what they call “intensive coordination” of state and federal environmental reviews.

There’s not much to say about this decision other than to praise it. Environmental review is important, but it doesn’t need to take as long as it sometimes does. In the meantime, jobs that could be created aren’t, and workers sit idle. That makes a difference to Fresno, which today was ranked as California’s most impoverished metropolis. The need for a streamlined review is clear.

Voters, state legislators, and Congress have approved the funding for this section of the high speed rail project. It’s time to start building. With strong leadership from President Obama and his administration, construction is on track to begin from Merced to Bakersfield next year.

I can’t wait.

  1. Alon Levy
    Sep 21st, 2012 at 08:36

    What annoys me is that they don’t do the same streamlining for everything. It doesn’t compromise environmental standards – it just demands that the review agencies cooperate and make decisions in a timely manner. Is the problem that doing it for everything requires bashing agency heads as a matter of culture and not as a matter of special one-time prestige projects? Or is it one of increasing agency budgets?

    Neil Shea Reply:

    I think you’re saying it — the global problem is one of human nature and bureaucratic inertia, and must be fought perpetually. What we have here is a signal of the priority that this specific project has to this administration.

    This blog unfortunately has a lot of very shrill negative commenters. But putting people in the central valley to work sooner, and making progress sooner on transportation alternatives is indeed welcome news.

    joe Reply:

    My guess is HSR approvals require cooperation between Fed agencies that do not typically interoperate with one another. FRA and US of Fish & Wildlife Service for example.

    Streamlining might also mean assigning staff to track the approvals and projects, specializing and documenting the approval workflow (including establishing legal findings which assure feds laws are followed) and establish POCs between agencies.

    Stanford will matrix department staff to create research centres that are interdisciplinary. It’s not always about head bashing and ass kicking. Obama probably expects to see additional projects and wants the agencies to be prepared.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Might just be that it doesn’t change anything, just bumps it up on the priority list.

  2. Derek
    Sep 21st, 2012 at 12:44

    Let’s get the IOS running by 2020, with electrification and true high speeds in the CV. Locomotive changes at Merced and Palmdale would achieve a one-seat ride all the way from SF to LA without waiting for the bookends to be electrified. It would be like the gauge change at the Spain-France border.

    Joey Reply:

    Interesting, and how do you propose to deal with the FRA problem, or the lack of capacity (single track) on long stretched of the end segments?

    Derek Reply:

    By stealing timeslots from Amtrak in the north and Metrolink in the south.

    Joey Reply:

    … okay … there are a few problems with that, such as the fact that Amtrak only has two slots in each direction per day at the north (on UP track) end and the fact that you’d be reducing already limited commuter service at the south end, but let’s assume for the moment that it would work. How do you deal with the fact that FRA compliance would be mandatory on the end segments?

    Derek Reply:

    Amtrak only has two slots in each direction per day at the north (on UP track)

    I count six between Merced and Oakland.

    Maybe it would be better if the San Joaquins themselves hauled the HSR EMUs from Merced to the Bay Area, if the platforms are long enough.

    Joey Reply:

    I messed up. It’s 4 round trips per day from Oakland (the other two go to Sacramento). Still not much. And the FRA issue. You still haven’t addressed the FRA issue.

    David Reply:

    How about your idea/plan but with new Amtrak/ACE hauling over the Altamont? It would be more direct.

    jonathan Reply:

    You do understand that modern HSR trainsets _don’t_ have locomotives; they’re EMUs.
    And the EMUs may or may not be designed to withstand the stresses of being hauled by a locomotive?

    And you don’t answer the point about the FRA problem. Current FRA rules will require, at minimum, on no FRA-compatible trains on the same rail segments as HSR, at the same time as HSR. (that’s exactly the constraints under which Caltrain got a wavier to run European EMUs.) Just how are you going to get _all_ FRA trains off the Palmdale-to-LA and Merced-to-SF segments in those “stolen” slots??

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Exactly. The “blended” plan hits the fan of reality.

    joe Reply:

    The President of the United States might be able to do something about that FRA problem.
    Just thinking that waivers might be possible if practical.

    thatbruce Reply:


    Safety standards by presidential decree? I don’t like that precedent, no matter the intentions.

    joe Reply:

    By decree as in making shit up? No.

    Air transportation is, by decree, asserted to be safe or unsafe under executive branch authority. They have a basis for their findings.

    The President would ask the agencies he run investigate the topic provide recommendations and options.

    jonathan Reply:

    @thatbruce: you are pre-supposing that the FRA regulations are actually _for_ safety.
    The historical record (buff-strenght rules imposed to protect USPS Railway Post Office vehicles, which tended to be consistend right behind locomotives, and got crushed in accidents) makes that …. arguable.

    The regulations preserve the _car_, not the people inside it. But yes, it’s a terrible precedent.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    You’re right that waivers are possible, and under any reasonable blended plan (i.e. IOS to Sylmar with through-service to LAUS – forget about doing Palmdale-Sylmar on the legacy route, it’s too slow and capacity-constrained) CAHSR will seek and get them.

    However, do not expect Obama to push through FRA reform.

    joe Reply:


    I expect O to push FRA reform that will allow HSR. For a project that’s supposed to be politically dead, it sure has high level support.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I’m willing to be positively surprised (as I was on Iran, though for that I credit Netanyahu for pissing off Obama to the point of opposing an attack). But regulatory reform is a wonky issue that requires listening to the right people, and there aren’t any in Obama’s circle. The previous round of regulatory reform was, at least on the FRA end, a farce.

    On top of that, the waiver regime is tolerable for high-profile HSR projects; it’s small-scale regional lines for which it’s too onerous. And beyond this, many of the worst FRA regulations do not matter too much to HSR, especially in its Californian version. Best industry practice is for regional rail to have one employee per train and intercity rail two; the FRA demands two; CAHSR is planning on five. For HSR, on-board employee wages are a small portion of the variable cost, but for a two-car DMU operation, they can make the difference between being able to run half-hourly service and having to run hourly off-peak service.

    That said, at least as far as rolling stock requirements are concerned, the FRA is already making noises about allowing European and Japanese trains in, using crash energy management as a substitute for buff strength.

    Max Wyss Reply:

    You may say, it is a waiver, but DCTA’s GTW DMU have a waiver to operate concurrently with FRA-complient vehicles. That means that there is hope for modern design to be honored within the FRA…

    jonathan Reply:

    Actually, no, not the Eshoo/Simitian/Gordon Peninsula “blended plan”. In that plan, the Pacheco line to San Jose is completed. HSR trainsets then share track with Caltrain’s FRA-waivered European EMUs.

    Derek Reply:

    And the EMUs may or may not be designed to withstand the stresses of being hauled by a locomotive?

    They would have to be able to withstand the stresses. You don’t want them tearing themselves apart when one of them loses power.

    As for the FRA rules problem at the end segments, when an EMU is being hauled by a slow diesel locomotive, is it still considered to be a bullet train?

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    The issue is whether the HS trains are FRA compliant and therefore compatible with other trains on line. The FRA philosophy is that trains might collide so you have to build them like brick s**t houses rather than spend money on quality track and signalling systems. This tends to be driven by freight operations. There are 1.4 million crudely designed freight cars in North America, and thousands of locomotives, all built to the low FRA standards of engineering to keep them cheap. Amtrak and Metrolink’s fleets are built to be compatible.
    Unless specifically designed or modified for the USA (e.g.Acela), or unless you clear the tracks of all other trains, or unless the FRA realizes that modern engineering can build strong cars at fewer tons per passenger, it is not permitted to run the HS trains say from Palmdale to L.A., even with a man walking in front at 3.5mph carrying a red flag.

    Derek Reply:

    Does PTC eliminate the need to clear the tracks?

    thatbruce Reply:


    thatbruce Reply:


    You need FRA-certified vehicles at both ends, which is how the Amtrak Cascades runs as a FRA train using non-FRA coaches.

    Derek Reply:

    That’s good to know. So, we could do the same between Los Angeles and Palmdale, and again between Merced and Oakland. A one-seat ride, running at 220 mph in the central valley, using existing tracks without electrification on the end segments.

    VBobier Reply:

    But not permanently, just while construction is going on.

    Joey Reply:

    Yes, they put a very heavy locomotive at one end and a block of concrete at the other.

    jonathan Reply:

    Often, that block of concrete is in a former loco. The concrete replaces the mass of the diesel, the generator, the electric motors, and the fuel, in a cab car or “cabbage” (cab + baggae).

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    just random rumor on the foamer boards: The block of concrete isn’t for crashworthiness but without the weight of the diesel and other equipment the former locomotive’s handling was unsafe. Didn’t track well etc. So they put weight back in.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    “The block of concrete isn’t for crashworthiness but without the weight of the diesel and other equipment the former locomotive’s handling was unsafe. Didn’t track well etc. So they put weight back in.”

    Not just a random rumor, but true without a lot of changes to spring rates and the like. This even applies (at least) to older US MU cars, specifically the old Lackawanna cars from the 1920s. Seems a number of those wound up in heritage service; they were visually appropriate, with riveted construction, openable windows, and clerestory roofs. However, some roads proceeded to torch off all the MU gear, such as air compressors, resistor banks, the control stands, all that stuff that went to making the MUs MUs, and found that they not only rode horribly, but the lack of weight let the cars rise up high enough on the now-unloaded springs that the couplers were too high. Made for a number of cars that were retired prematurely on that account!

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    LOL, retired prematurely…. They went into service in 1930 and ran, hard, until 1984, in regular commuter service…..

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Ho, ho, ho, should have qualified that as prematurely for heritage service!!

    Joey Reply:

    I’ve always wondered what Amtrak had against having actual locomotives at both ends of the train…

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Money; didn’t need the power, and didn’t need to spend the money paying for the power.

    Despite the talk of Amtrak wasting money, I’m not sure they aren’t tight with it. Could undoubtedly stand to do something with the headquarters staff, and they have equipment utilization problems that come from schedules that are often freight-road driven, but I suspect that beyond that they may not be as bad as some would proclaim.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    If the trainset doesn’t need more than one loco to be pulled at speed, then two locos would just waste energy. For the Vermonter, which has a loco at each end due to lack of cab cars, they needed to do something special to make sure the locos only operate at half-power.

    Also, presumably cabbage cars are cheaper than locos.

    (When we say Amtrak wastes money, we don’t mean that it wastes money always; we mean that its corporate and union cultures include many aspects that waste money.)

    joe Reply:

    unions waste money – it’s axiomatic. George Will is right.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    George Will wouldn’t know the difference between American and German and Japanese train operating practices if they ran him over.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    But George Will does know the difference between coach and business class on a Regional…

    jonathan Reply:

    They would have to be able to withstand the stresses. You don’t want them tearing themselves apart when one of them loses power.

    Derek, you seem unacquainted with the basic facts. Paul Dyson has discussed the FRA regulatory issues, and the problems with operating modern rolling stock in conjunction with FRA juggernauts.

    Modern high-speed trainsets are designed as light as possible. Think of hem as being like airliners, or so-da-cans: minimal _excess_ structural strength, because excess structural strength translates to more weight. I know for a fact that older, lightweight MU sets may not be suitable as locomotive-hauled trainsets; they may develop cracks. All I’m saying is that you cannot take it for granted that a true HSR trainset can spend a bunch of its time hauled behind (or pushed by) some FRA-compliant behemoth.

    And the trainsets don’t :”lose power”: the electrical system is distributed, redundantly, through the train. And if you lose overhead catenary power, your society has bigger problems; and the likely available electric locos won’t help.

    Derek Reply:

    It doesn’t take much weight to create a lot of tensile strength. So you have to admit it would be pretty ridiculous to build an EMU that couldn’t handle being pulled by a diesel locomotive.

    jonathan Reply:

    No, i _don’t_ have to admit that; I’ve seen such.

    Wdobner Reply:

    Paul Dyson has discussed the FRA regulatory issues, and the problems with operating modern rolling stock in conjunction with FRA juggernauts.

    Stating that the rules are absolute and will never change is as foolish as ignoring the rules in the first place. If the Feds want an initial HSR operation to be somewhat successful, with a 5 hr LA-SF travel time, then they’ll find a way to see that the regulations do not obstruct that operation.

    And the trainsets don’t :”lose power”: the electrical system is distributed, redundantly, through the train. And if you lose overhead catenary power, your society has bigger problems; and the likely available electric locos won’t help.

    Better tell that to the folks at DB. It’s rare, but the ICE 3s and ICE Ts do experience electrical failures due to there being a few points where a single component failure can lead to a failure of the traction components.

    And no, it’d take an extraordinarily unskilled engineer at the throttle of a ludicrously powerful and non-computerized locomotive to do damage to a high speed train he’s coupled onto. It’s not uncommon for European railways to use US designed freight locomotives to move new-build high speed trainsets. You’re overstating the fragility of those high speed trains.

    joe Reply:

    FRA regulations are insurmountable but Google Self-Driving Cars just a few years away.

    You have to laugh when the President VP, X-Speaker of the House, current Senate Lead and State Gov and Legislature are powerless against the will of the FRA.

    Ant6n Reply:

    How do they haul the Talgos? They don’t seem to be very FRA compliant. But they seem pretty similar to HSR. In France, they used Diesel Locos in front of TGV trains.
    It may be possible to just use unpowered trainsets similar to Talgos, and haul them with electric trains on the HSR tracks at 250km/h, and use Diesel trains on other tracks. Surely there’s some way make a blended approach feasible.
    As for capacity, if the freight lines are so close to capacity, isn’t there some incentive to add more conventional tracks? They are much cheaper than hsr, and the capacity has independent utility.

    jonathan Reply:

    Yes, carriages designed to be locomotive-hauled at 250km/hr could safely do that. The Amtrak Cascades talgo sets are 6th-generation: Talgo 200s or talgo VI. They’re designed to be locomotive-hauled, up to, er, 250km/hr or 140 mi/hr or thereabouts.

    Train components aren’t quite as plug-and-play as you might think. Amtrak’s SDP40F s suffered derailments at speed; which the FRA eventually blamed on harmonic vibration between the loco and the adjacent lightweight baggage cars.

    I’ve seen light-weight articulated trainsets mis)used as loco-hauled consists; NZR RM1xx rebuilt as “AC” class passenger cars. The bogies and draw-gear weren’t designed to be loco hauled. They quickly failed from metal fatigue

    I have no idea whether specific HSR EMU trainsests are designed to be loco-hauled; but I don’t htink you can take it for granted, especially EMU trainsets. Note that non-EMU HSR trainsets with a “power car at each end _are_ loco-hauled; they’re also pushed by the loco at the other end. (THe ICE1 power-cars, BR 401, were direct descendants of the BR120 locomotive.)

    Ant6n Reply:

    But what you say does suggest that loco-haulded 250km/h running with a set similar to Talgo is possible if the trainset and locos are properly designed for this purpose. Given the overall cost and time frame of this project, compared to the cost of a trainset like that, which could also be reused later on other emerging HSR lines, it does not seem like an unreasonable approach.

  3. Ant6n
    Sep 21st, 2012 at 18:24

    Does anybody know the planned loading gauge for CAHSR?

    jonathan Reply:

    Clem has a copy of TM 1.1.21, 15% design, typical cross-sections

    it’s short on height numbers, though.

    swing hanger Reply:

    It appears to be a generous loading/structure gauge, essentially a combination of Japanese loading gauge width with the higher European loading gauge height, prudent as it allows many designs to compete.

    jonathan Reply:

    Yes, they’re quite explicit about allowing both European and Shinkansen equipment.
    thought I think they’re factually incorrect about all European equipment fititng into the UIC B/TSI BG gauge; the ICE-1 and ICE-2 didn’t. And of course their definition of “Europe” excludes Russia. I really do wonder why they didn’t discuss the lower profile of the Sapsan loading gauge

    Peter Reply:

    The ICE 1 and 2 also do not travel internationally, with the exception of Austria (through 2007) and Switzerland. They’re now pretty much considered obsolete, and are no longer considered viable export products.

    Why then bother discussing them in a document pertaining to design for future trains?

    jonathan Reply:

    It’s still factually incorrect. (Didn’t you have legal training?) These bozos are paid to do engineering. The _reason_ the ICE1/ICE2 are limited to Austria (and Switzerland, with suitable dual pantos) _is_, *duh*, because of the UIC-C loading gauge, and 16.6KHz electrification. And it’s all of a piece with them not considering the low-level loading gauge of the Velaro Sapsan; which allows 2+3 seating, and is only a half-inch wider than normal North American loading gauge.

    Sheesh, next you’ll be saying you don’t think Western Russia is in Europe.

    What these _factually incorrect_ statements isuggest to me, is that perhaps these “engineers’ were given a list of possible trainsets; and then designed around that list.

    Peter Reply:

    It was just a sloppy statement. I honestly don’t care why they didn’t include ICE1/2 or Sapsan, given that they aren’t export models (no one is planning on purchasing non-standard gauge or 20+ year-old designs).

    Peter Reply:

    I just read on the German wiki for the ICE 3 that it too is wider than the UIC loading gauge, being 23 mm too wide. Apparently this was cleared with neighboring countries.

    jonathan Reply:

    Huh? “the” UIC loading gauge?? The nice thing about standards is, there are so many to choose from.
    The UIC A, B, C loading gauges have been superseded by TSI standards which define kinematic gauges; the TSi gauges are (I’m told) about 50mm wider than the UIC statigcgauges.

    Locomotive manufacturers say there are four loading gauges on Western European standard-gauge rail lines.: From smallest to largest:
    1. UIC 505-1 (France and Italy);
    2. Switzerland (the SBB gauge is bigger than 505-1, but smaller than G2);
    2 Germany/Austria G2 (what Wikipedia in English erroneously calls “UIC GB”; see the annotations on the graphic!, which clearly say “G1” and “G2″); and l
    3.”Everything else”, the Low Countries and Scandinavia with loading gauges larger than G2. Scandinavian loading gauges are particularly large, for historic reasons dating back to Russian broad gauge.

    Bombardier TRAXX literature has a pretty coloured map. You can find the same basic info in the Wikipedia German article on Interoperabilität im Schienenverkehr, or the equivalent French article.
    I don’t know where you read that the ICE-3 is winder than “the” UIC gauge. It’s supposedly TSI 505-1, narrower and lower than the ICE-1 or ICE-2, which is why the ICE3 can run through France and the Chunnel. (Cue Adirondacker’s comments about dimnutive European rolling stock).

    CHSRA’s TM 1.1.10 has chosen the “G3” gauge to represent European equipment, and then taken the larger of that, or Shinkansen loading gauges:

    Oh, and please don’;t be obtuse; the point about the Sapsan is the _loading_ gauge and 2+3 seating; not the wheel gauge. If Siemens can build a wider Velaro for the relatively modest Russian order (12 trainsets, if memory serves), they can do it for California. Unless they somehow lost the tooling ;)

    Peter Reply:

    Das Lichtraumprofil entspricht weitgehend dem Standard des Internationalen Eisenbahnverbandes (UIC). Die Fahrzeuge sind damit prinzipiell in Europa freizügig einsetzbar. Die Wagenlänge der Endwagen liegt bei 25.675 mm, die der Mittelwagen bei 24.775 mm.[2] Die Wagenkastenbreite liegt, mit maximal 2.950 mm, bis zu 23 mm über der Vorgabe des maßgebenden UIC-Merkblattes 505. Diese Maßüberschreitung wurde mit den benachbarten Bahnen vereinbart.

    “The loading gauge generally complies with UIC Standards. In principle, the vehicles can therefore be used freely across Europe. The length of the end-cars is 25,675 mm, that of the middle-cars is 24,775 mm. The width of the cars, at a maximum of 2,950 mm, is up to 23 mm larger than UIC loading gauge 505. This was cleared with the neighboring rail systems.

  4. morris brown
    Sep 22nd, 2012 at 07:50

    Judge rules Farmers can seek an injunction to stop the HSR project. (Maybe not so fast President Obama)


    Eric M Reply:

    “seek an injunction”

    Doesn’t mean they will get it. You can seek anything you want.

  5. D. P. Lubic
    Sep 23rd, 2012 at 16:46

    Guest post from Bruce McF’s Sunday Train, via “Agent Orange,” with plenty of comments:

  6. swing hanger
    Sep 24th, 2012 at 07:00

    19th Annual Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads Conference. The list of participants/sponsors, as well as topics, is interesting:

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