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]


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