Thursday, October 6, 2011

CTI Supports Development of Safety & Security Information Management

CTI Associates was recently selected to assist the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in developing a new Rail Safety & Security Information Management System (RSSIMS). As subconsultant to Eclipse Solutions, a leading provider of IT consulting services, CTI will provide subject matter expertise in railroad and rail transit safety and security, in order to support development of this high-technology software solution. The goal of RSSIMS is to develop an integrated database to manage and utilize California’s rail safety and security data, thus streamlining CPUC’s operations while conforming to their current business practices.

The CPUC has oversight responsibilities for railroad freight and passenger systems and for rail transit systems operating on 7,100-plus miles of track in California. The CPUC also has jurisdiction over the safety of roughly 13,000 public and private rail crossings used by vehicles and pedestrians.

CTI Associates is a leader in providing project and program management services to the municipal and public transportation sector, with specific expertise in railroad and rail transit design, construction, safety, security and all-hazards management. CTI is a preferred partner to the IT industry in helping provide technology solutions for public agencies. For more information, visit

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Evaluating Transit Station Infill Options

How does the community and transit decision-makers go about selecting from among several viable alternatives for adding infill stations to an existing rapid transit line, in established close-in suburban neighborhoods? To this end, the Public Transit Bug has blogged about tonight's public meeting for CTA Yellow Line Infill Stations and put forth an excellent analysis of the three optional stations being considered, using GIS tools and a dose of common sense. We offer our comments as well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Comments on 2035 Vision Plan for Chicago Rail Transit

Brian over at Public Transit Bug has offered some excellent comments on the updated 2035 Vision Plan for Chicago Rail Transit. You can also find our follow-up responses in the comments section of that blog/post.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Updated 2035 Chicago Rail Transit Vision Plan

We've updated the 2035 Chicago Rail Transit Vision Plan and included staging plans as well. Emphasis is now given to a new Paris-like RER system of through-routed regional commuter rail. The description text on the Vision pages is not yet in sync with the graphic plan, but we hope to bring these two in alignment soon. In the meantime, feel free to comment.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Silly Argument Over BRT vs. Rail

Today "The Transport Politic" takes on the BRT vs. Rail argument with some interesting points of reference/comparison between the two modes, as well as some refreshing conclusions. View the blog post here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Setting Priorities for South Works

An interesting post by Bob Quellos in Gapers Block on plans for the redevelopment of the former US Steel South Works site on Chicago's South Side, now sitting vacant. The author questions the priorities of the "powers that be" in that city, particularly when faced with massive layoffs in the city services sector.

The project has all the classic overtones of a large Chicago project -- massive spending but with loosely defined priorities and outcomes, little consideration for surrounding neighborhoods (some of the City's poorest), and the specter of impending gentrification.

But Quellos also raises indirectly the larger question of what our priorities should be when faced with myriad challenges, both short-term and structural -- crumbling infrastructure in the rest of the city, continued reliance on non-renewable energy and a sagging economy to name a few. Should we be funneling tax dollars to private investors, and what is the probable outcome if we don't?

Would South Works  (and other sites like it) continue to languish without the injection of private sector investment? And should we be swayed from our long-term goals of neighborhood-strengthening by the need to address short-term calamities, such as the recent layoff of 1,100 CTA employees?

More specifically, what types of investment should we finance in South Works for the greatest positive impact, and what is the time frame for a program of this magnitude to mature? What opportunities avail themselves?

What about high-capacity transit to service the new urban neighborhood? This blog has long advocated a Vision Plan for Chicago transit that looks 25, even 50 to 100 years in the future. As the inset (left and above) shows, we might consider securing right-of-way now for a corridor about 1/3 of a mile east of the current Metra Electric South Chicago branch, that can form the mixed-use spine of the new community, while also supporting higher densities than the current line serves. And could the old corridor be repurposed as a new bicycle/pedestrian greenway (not shown) in a neighborhood sorely lacking such facilities?

While we show light rail, this is just a placeholder. Other visions exist for the repurposing of Metra Electric service to better serve the neighborhood, such as the Gray Line proposal. In any case, the community should have a say in the choice of mode, via an inclusive and participatory environmental process that looks at the larger neighborhood comprising South Works plus the existing neighborhoods to the west, all the way to South Chicago Avenue, not just the new neighborhood being slapped on the landscape.

The point is not to fall in love with any single plan, but to look thoughtfully and holistically at the myriad of elements needed to create a truly great, new neighborhood that supports and strengthens its surroundings and brings social and economic vitality to an entire chunk of a great city, in this case southeastern Chicago. We don't get these kind of chances often, so let's go about getting to these decisions the right way.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Getting Past Compliance: Federal Regulation and the Caltrain Experiment

Given the current level of press coverage on high-speed rail and its massive infrastructure investment requirements, it's interesting how little exploration there has been of new (and potentially much cheaper) solutions for improving rail transit. This should be qualified as “new to the US”, since paradigms such as concurrent operation of lighter electric trains with heavier diesel-hauled rail have long been employed throughout the rest of the world. Electrified trains have been used for decades throughout our nation's urban transit systems. But why haven't we harnessed the potential of electric trains for use with more commuter rail and in existing rail corridors?

The answer is simple: government restrictions. The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) has long prohibited mixed traffic, i.e. the sharing of the same tracks by standard diesel trains and lightweight electrified trains. Requiring one or more separate tracks is generally cost prohibitive, and building separate but parallel electrified rail corridors is usually out of the question due to high start-up costs, significant environmental impacts, etc.

Despite this, we do see electric passenger trains operating harmoniously with freight trains in a few areas, namely on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (Amtrak is the only passenger rail carrier exempted from the above-described FRA restrictions). However a very low percentage of America’s track mileage is electrified, making the conversation practically a non-starter even where the possibility of electrification is being explored. [A reader points out that Amtrak Acela equipment is in fact FRA-compliant  in terms of carbody strength. See this post describing the hardships Amtrak and the carmaker experienced with FRA as a result of this unfortunate edict.]

From a sustainability perspective, electric trains are the ‘greenest’ option. They pollute far less than their diesel counterparts, can be run from renewable energy sources such as wind or solar, and can recoup energy through regenerative braking. Not to mention electric motors contribute to less wear and tear on tracks, thus extending track life and requiring reduced maintenance. Electric trains accelerate and decelerate faster, allowing them to service all stations on a given run in less time, thus improving operating cost plus passenger experience. Environmentally, electric trains are superior, i.e. they produce less noise than their diesel counterparts. Europe tapped into these benefits long ago. In the United States however, mixed operations are a complicated issue.

FRA’s primary concern is over safety. If a collision were to occur, the reasoning goes that small lightweight electric cars wouldn't stand a chance against large diesel locomotives. And of course train collisions involving passengers, though rare as hen’s teeth compared to automobile collisions, are usually catastrophic. This makes them news-worthy and by extension, embarrassing to the regulators.

But in absolute numbers, wouldn't providing the type of quality passenger rail service that will coerce drivers away from the road might actually save lives, in net terms? In fact, European countries with rich passenger rail networks have lower vehicle fatality rates than the U.S.

While safety concerns are not to be taken lightly, Caltrain, a commuter rail line running between San Francisco and San Jose, successfully argued that the cure was in fact, worse than the supposed disease. Guided by energetic, forward-looking staff and faced with severe cash-flow restrictions, Caltrain was last week granted a groundbreaking waiver from the FRA allowing them to operate lightweight electric trains on the same tracks that carry diesel-hauled trains. Caltrain believes the move will enable them to save on corridor construction costs (i.e. additional tracks and infrastructure), while operating electrified trains will be innately more efficient and have lower operating costs.

However, obtaining the waiver wasn't an easy feat and more work remains to see a successful outcome. If followed three years of planning, testing and research and was accompanied by a mandated safety program. All trains must be outfitted with Positive Train Control, a technology still being developed (for Caltrain, PTC is currently envisioned as a comprehensive global positioning system for train monitoring and collision prevention). After the new cars are built, Caltrain must perform additional tests, including simulated crashes.

Moreover the waiver only allows concurrent operation of electrified and non-electrified passenger trains – freight and passenger service is still subject to temporal separation, in Caltrain’s case meaning that freight must operate at night when passenger trains are not present. In the large majority of cases where freight is the dominant presence in the corridor, this might be a tough sell to the private railroads. Perhaps the “carrot” which can change the freight operator’s mind will be to package track and signal improvements with the public projects, such that freight benefits as well. This cooperative approach with the railroads is one we would like to see employed more often.

As the first in the country to obtain such permission, Caltrain will effectively be a pilot program, and if successful might possibly pave the way for even less restrictive waivers for US transit systems. Let's hope all goes well and mixed traffic rail corridors are no longer the exception, but the norm.

[Photo of Caltrain conceptual EMU car illustration courtesy of Caltrain]