Posts about FRA
In the real world: Montgomery BRT, Flower Theatre, Lion Ride, Northeast rail, McMillan sand, and activism training
Not so much happens in August around here, but a few great things do. Upcoming events include an exciting panel about Montgomery's BRT plan, Dan Reed's charrette on Silver Spring's Flower Theatre, activism training for Pro-DC, the first public meetings about a major study of the Northeast Corridor rail, and a tour of the McMillan site.
Montgomery County, like many suburban areas, has long been stuck in a cycle of car dependence, where any growth brings more traffic. The Purple Line and a countywide BRT system could free the county to add jobs and residents in a walkable way.
People have been discussing the Purple Line for years, but the BRT network has recently joined it on the scene. On Wednesday, residents who helped devise the plan will talk on a panel organized by the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
The panel is Wednesday, August 8, 7 pm (doors open at 6:30) at the Silver Spring Civic Center, 1 Veterans Place. RSVP here.
Imagine the Flower: Dan Reed's charrette on the Flower Theatre, also in Silver Spring, is tomorrow. How can the theater bloom again into a space that serves the community? People will discuss this on Saturday from 10-1 at Fenton Street Market, in Veterans Plaza at the corner of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring.
Ride the Lion: Sunday is the Frederick Douglass Family Festival, at the historic site dedicated to the Lion of Anacostia. At 3 pm, WABA is organizing a leisurely bike ride through the neighborhood and along the river.
Be an activist: There are going to be a lot of big issues to decide this fall, including the zoning update and parking policies. Pro-DC is organizing an activism training for you to learn how to best testify at public meetings, recruit others and get involved.
The training is on Wednesday, August 15 at Laughing Man Tavern, 1306 G Street, NW near Metro Center Metro. Doors open at 6 and the workshop runs from 6:30-7:30. RSVP here.
Scope the NEC: Do you care about Amtrak's Northeast Corridor or any of the commuter railroads that ply its length? The Federal Railroad Administration is doing a comprehensive study of the corridor and what capital investments will help it continue to grow, serve more passengers, and serve existing passengers better.
There is a series of public meetings along the corridor, from Boston to DC, in coming weeks. DC's is on Tuesday, August 21 at the Council of Governments, 777 North Capitol St near Union Station. Baltimore's is Wednesday, August 15 at the University of Baltimore's Thumel Conference Facilities. Each has an open house from 4:30-7:30 pm and a presentation at 5:30. You can also send comments electronically.
Learn about McMillan: One of DC's biggest development proposals, and controversies, involves the McMillan San Filtration Site by North Capitol and Michigan Avenue. The master planner, a development partner, ANC Commissioner, and the Coalition for Smarter Growth will show you the site and the plans on Saturday, August 25, from 10 am to noon. Meet at First and Channing, NW, accessible by the H3/H4 and 80 buses. RSVP here.
These and other events are on the Greater Greater Washington calendar. Got an event we should include? Let us know at email@example.com.
While American passenger rail often leaves much to be desired, our freight rail network is second to none. This privately owned and operated network often finds itself at odds with desires for increased passenger service and high speed operations.
Hauling the Freight: Freight rail companies have been reluctant to embrace the recent enthusiasm for high speed rail. In a recent article from the Economist, railroads expressed all sorts of concerns, from technical considerations for offering mixed-speed service along shared passenger and freight lines to a complete re-regulation of the industry, which was de-regulated in 1980.
One such pending requirement will be use of Positive Train Control (PTC) on all routes where freight and passenger trains share the same tracks.
Freight railroads fear a return to the bad old days. From the Economist article:
Federal and state grants will flow to the freight railroads to help them upgrade their lines for more and faster passenger trains. But already rows are breaking out over the strict guidelines the [Federal Railroad Administration] will lay down about operations on the upgraded lines, such as guarantees of on-time performance with draconian penalties if they are breached and the payment of indemnities for accidents involving passenger trains. The railroads are also concerned that the federal government will be the final arbiter of how new capacity created with the federal funds will be allocated between passenger and freight traffic. And they are annoyed that there was little consultation before these rules were published.
There have been some heated meetings between freight-railroad managers and FRA officials. Henry Posner III, chairman of Iowa Interstate Railroad, ruefully notes that freight railroads, in the form of passengers and regulation, "are getting back things that caused trouble".
Prior to de-regulation, American railroads had obligations to offer money-losing passenger services, dealt with heavy taxation, and paid for their own infrastructure in the face of heavy subsidized interstate highways undercutting their core markets. Mark Ruetter documented these challenges back in an excellent 1994 Wilson Quarterly article entitled "The Lost Promise of the American Railroad."
One core issue is defining the best balance between public and private interests. America's railroads are private enterprises, and back in the day where they dominated all travel and enjoyed de facto monopolies on various markets, they were regulated accordingly. As transportation infrastructure financing shifted towards public funding (such as the interstate highway system), the regulatory structure did not evolve to meet the new realities.
The current debate is essentially one of re-defining the proper roles for each of the partners in this mother of all public-private partnerships. Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic suggests that the Economist's take isn't as dire as the railroads might make it seem:
If the public is committed to the funding of improved tracks along privately owned freight corridors, it has the right to demand that those companies allow passenger trains to run along them. From that perspective, the freight companies have little room to complain.These changing roles are not without tension. The California High Speed Rail project has run into problems in their negotiations with the Union Pacific Railroad. Likewise, DC has been involved
But the federal government does have a long-term interest in promoting investments that offer improvements in both freight and passenger offerings. Freight lines that run through the center of cities should be moved to new routes that detour, allowing passenger services to take over these access corridors much more essential for people than for cargo. Lines running both passenger and freight trains should be expanded to three or more tracks to allow multiple running speeds in both directions. Projects could theoretically be sponsored by public-private partnership, using both government and freight company funds directed to investments that benefit both.
Coordination needs to encompass technical questions (Standards for train control? Shared track? Dedicated track? Electrification?) as well as financial ones (Who will pay for these infrastructure upgrades? What kind of control will come with public dollars?)
Get on the Bus: Aaron Renn writes about bus service improvements over at The Urbanophile, building off of this New York Magazine piece on New York's new select bus service. The article outlines many relatively cheap and easy to implement programs that can vastly improve the bus experience - fare pre-payment, limited stops, exclusive lanes, multi-door boarding, etc. Renn writes:
[C]learly there is enormous opportunity in the US to start transforming the transportation infrastructure of our cities with high quality bus service in a way that is faster, cheaper, and much more pervasive than we'd ever be able to achieve with rail.In the piece, Jarrett Walker highlights Jay Walder's quote on taking bus lanes seriously. He also notes, however, that such seriousness is not without compromises. Others, such as Cap'n Transit, have noted that while these bus improvements are tremendous, we should be careful to not oversell them, as many often do with terms such as a "surface subway."
Cross-posted at City Block.
FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff told Congress that while he believes strongly in greater federal oversight of transit safety, it's important for that oversight not to diminish the usefulness of transit.
When news first broke that the Obama Administration was seeking a greater federal role in transit safety oversight, I cautioned that such oversight must not repeat the Federal Railroad Administration's mistakes.
FRA rules forced Acela trainsets to be so heavy they couldn't operate at originally-planned speeds and later started developing cracks. By focusing on crash survivability instead of crash avoidance, the FRA has limited intercity rail as an alternative to driving in the United States.
Rogoff said that the FTA has no intention of following that path:
We must remember that, despite WMATA's safety challenges, every Washington area commuter is safer traveling on WMATA than they are traveling on our highways. Thus, we cannot allow any degradation in WMATA's reliability and performance such that commuters opt to abandon Metro in favor of our already congested highways. We must also caution against any proposals that will reduce significantly WMATA's existing capacity, forcing more commuters onto our highways. Any actions or proposals pushing WMATA riders onto our highways simply will degrade safety and worsen congestion in the region.Thanks. As Rogoff would oversee the beginnings of such federal oversight, it's important for him to set up regulators' goals appropriately to maximize transit safety in the context of overall commuter safety, making transit safer while ensuring that it doesn't also make transit worse.
The Obama administration is calling for federal safety oversight over the nation's transit systems.
Clearly, the existing oversight is failing, at least in the Washington region, as many local oversight boards lack the resources or the teeth to promote meaningful safety. The Tri-State Oversight Committee not only ran into a brick wall named Alexa Dupigny-Samuels when it asked to monitor active tracks, but has no Web site, no contact information, and no staff.
Dupigny-Samuels is still safety chief and keeps her responsibilities, Metro insists, but she's just getting added supervision from the police chief. Really? So what would one have to do to actually get responsibilities taken away or to be formally demoted?
Jim Graham joined the calls to welcome federal oversight. Richard Layman prefers a stronger regional oversight system. Either way, safety needs to be a top priority, and Metro has clearly fallen down on the job, as Dave Stroup has thoroughly documented in his ongoing series (1, 2, 3).
Nevertheless, it's vital to ensure that safety oversight focuses on the big picture. Making transit safer is important. But there's also such a thing as too much safety. Many argue that the Federal Railroad Administration over-regulates railroads. They require trains heavy enough to handle large crashes without even deforming. As a result, Amtrak's Acela trains had to be reinforced with extra supports, making them heavier and slower, and causing them to break down much more often than their European counterparts.
A federal oversight board in charge of safety would have one mission: making transit safer. Would that lead to unreasonable unfunded mandates, forcing transit agencies to drastically cut service to pay for needed improvements? Would that lead to permanent slow-speed orders that make transit systems significantly slower than cars? After all, if a safety agency issues regulations that decrease deaths by two a year nationwide but also decrease ridership by a hundred thousand nationwide, that agency can point to the reduced deaths and say they've done their job.
If highway deaths increase as a result, they haven't. BeyondDC calculated that Metrorail is 34 times safer than driving per passenger mile. Even one person is much safer still riding Metrorail than switching to driving. Commenters have pointed out that good driving can reduce crash risk somewhat. That's true, to an extent. Of course, we don't know if the people who switch are good drivers or bad. There's also an argument that you can control your own risk on the road, instead of on Metro. So let's hold Metro to a higher standard than driving. But how much higher? Ten times? A hundred?
There haven't been calls for increased federal regulation of Secret Service vehicles, speed restrictions on Maryland Route 5, or mandating replacement of all old cars without side air bags. If a driver kills a pedestrian, police just wonder if the driver was criminally at fault, and if not, we shrug our shoulders and move on. That happens a few times a week just in this region. But when there's one tragic train crash for the first time since 1982, the federal government steps in. We have federal regulation of auto crashworthiness, but not roadway design, which is the bigger culprit in many deaths.
It'd be great for Metro to replace the 1000-series cars. But that would cost billions they don't have. Actually funding new cars would be best. What if that's not possible? Shorten all trains to four cars? Double rush hour headways? Delete the Blue Line permanently?
Safety oversight could certainly bring a lot of good. It's just just a capital issue. As Dave Stroup has written, some of the problems are organizational. Some involve processes. There does need to be some independent monitoring. And making people feel safe riding transit is absolutely vital to getting people to ride.
Ultimately, safety regulation is valuable as long as its net effect is to increase the safety of commuting overall, not just the safety of that one mode even if the regulation pushes people to a more dangerous mode. Instead of making the Federal Transit Administration responsible for transit safety, let's make the safety regulation body (federal or regional) responsible for improving surface transportation safety in general. Let them issue recommendations for driving, bicycling, walking, transit and commuter rail safety. Measure their success based on one thing: the overall death rate in a metropolitan area from people moving about. That will ensure they focus on whatever is killing the most people, rather than whatever gets the biggest headlines.
If that's not politically realistic, what else could we do to ensure that a federal or regional oversight board pushes for the right changes without going overboard and killing transit in the process?
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