DOT High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail

FRA Preliminary Rail Plan: No Plan at All

» A wait until summer 2010 before a clearer elucidation of national priorities, despite the fact that stimulus rail grants will appropriated this winter.

You’ve got to give it to the Federal Railroad Administration: it’s doing as much as possible to avoid pissing anyone off.

Though it’s been a full year since the U.S. government enacted the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) and six months since the Department of Transportation released information about its high-speed rail strategy, the FRA has managed to put together a 41-page Preliminary National Rail Plan with virtually no planning included. And that’s a big mistake.

Here’s the situation: state rail agencies have submitted applications for more than $50 billion in improvement projects. California’s citizens have approved almost $10 billion to build a 220 mph statewide train in that state, but need a federal commitment. China and virtually every other industrialized country continue to invest huge sums in serious, though-out projects of national interest.

The FRA responds with the minimalist Preliminary National Rail Plan, which is supposed to “lay the groundwork” for a final National Rail Plan due sometime next year. The report released today suggests that planners consider both freight and passenger rail, establish “projects of national significance,” “propose financing mechanisms” with the goals of increasing safety, improving the livability of communities, reducing fuel use, and expanding economic competitiveness. The final Plan “will set forth a methodology that can more accurately determine what capacity is needed and where intermodal connections need to be improved.”

But as today’s report itself admits, the Preliminary Plan “generally does not offer specific recommendations,” and that’s the crux of the problem. The United States needs to get serious about high-speed rail: we have run out of time for these generalities. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will award some eight billion dollars of funds to rail projects in a few months, but he will have no objective, realistic criteria by which to judge and compare the projects — at least publicly. This lack of process transparency is exactly the way to turn a promising investment program into something many politicians will be able to get away with calling a boondoggle.

Admittedly, the FRA has been put in somewhat of a predicament by the language of 2008’s PRIIA, which required the DOT to write this rail plan in the first place. That bill demands that the FRA “coordinate the States’ plans into a blueprint for an efficient national system, thereby meeting both regional and national goals.” In the grand tradition of U.S. federalism, we’re somehow expected to get a national plan out of a mess — and a whole bunch of conflicted interests.

Instead of moving forward with definitive statements about where investment should go — a national rail plan — the FRA will spend the next few months in meetings, hoping to convince states to update their own proposals, to coordinate, to make steps before Washington gets involved. Only then will the National Rail Plan be released; just how vague will it be?

I remain convinced that if the federal government is using its funds to develop a nationwide rail network, it must be sincere about establishing long-term objectives — not based on nebulous “goals” that everyone shares, but rather on addressing specific demands for new rail investment. Which corridors should be prioritized? Where should the fastest train services be implemented? What kind of funding responsibility will states play in the process?

Of course we’re at the beginning of this decades-long investment program, but the FRA’s unwillingness to be explicit is incredibly frustrating. Other countries do not scrupulously avoid making long-term plans. That’s why their infrastructure systems are more advanced and better maintained.

The FRA is not incompetent. Nor is it incapable of putting together a serious proposal. It just doesn’t want to seem like it’s giving preferential treatment to some areas over others. But any project of this magnitude — a national rail network — will require sacrifice. Not everyone will get rail service.

The map below shows the projects being planned for rail service improvements nationwide — it’s a sad demonstration of what happens when states, regions, and the federal government aren’t talking with one another, and when they lack an overall goal. Today’s report does nothing to clarify the situation.

US Rail Plans Map

Image above: Proposed U.S. rail investments, from the Preliminary National Rail Plan

35 replies on “FRA Preliminary Rail Plan: No Plan at All”

Yes, it does look all introduction, doesn’t it? Here’s something we should bear in mind while planning, here’s something else, here’s a third thing . . .. Then just when you expect an actual plan, next steps.

W can do some tea-leaf reading though. The document talks much much more about freight than passenger rail (the four pages of “framework” contain just two short paragraphs, saying as little as possible, on passenger rail), which is sort of odd since the plan was required by the *Passenger* Rail Investment and Improvement Act. I take it that this is deliberate and intended as a signal to the freight railroads that FRA has their back.

Not good.

It should be noted that the California Rail News is published by TRAC, a group that has decided to oppose the high speed rail project in California and team up with the NIMBY’s in Palo Alto and other areas to accomplish these goals. Many rail advocates in California no longer support TRAC and their positions.

Their analysis is very NIMBYfocused and appears to be an attempt to stir up more NIMBY backlash. Currently the California High Speed Rail Authority is examing alternativies with all the communities around the state. Some ideas are controversial (of course) and feedback is being taken.California is a very built up state and there will be impacts. I am sure trains will not travel 217 miles through cities. There are already discussions to posssibly by pass smaller cities like Morgan Hill. No decisions have been made yet. I have attend several of these meetings and I believe TRAC is misrepresenting the public process by making it appear that the Authority has already finalized their plans are now trying to ram them down the throats of communities. There is no evidence of this at the meetings I have atttended.

But the FRA is incompetent – it insists on standards that are out of sync with what’s done anywhere else in the world. Even on old legacy lines, its compliant buffed-up trains don’t perform better than modern lightweight trains in collisions with heavy freight trains.

As immediately accurate as your criticism appears you neglect to deal with the huge oppositional issues that should drive this discussion. First, doing public planning over right of ways built by and presently controlled by the private sector, we’ll call that public v. private. Second, the substantial conflict between political jurisdictions, this we can call State v. Federal. Then thirdly, there is an institutional conflict for the FRA itself, created and maintained to regulate is now being asked to plan, I don’t know what to call that but it occurs to me that the FRA must be pretty conflicted and already has a lot on its plate keeping up with technology, keeping the trains from hitting each other and killing employees, drivers and pedestrians.

It’s vague, but then again, why bother doing a detailed plan when there is no evidence that the US is willing to commit the $500B+ it would take to build a nation HSR system?

I think PeakVT may have a point. FRA and DOT don’t have the money to implement a plan. Perhaps they’re waiting to see if Oberstar’s bill gets passed before doing a full blown rail plan?

I agree, the plan is “No Plan”, but a nice assembly of facts and figures, references, and a snapshot of the current system.
I think were hearing the gears grinding, as the FRA attempts to shift from a pure regulatory agency to one that invests in both freight and passenger rail needs.
It’s a tough call, when nearly all of the tracks are owned by someone else.

I think the ideas mentioned and what they seem to be doing, eg not making a plan until they know the money is there, is totally stupid. You make a plan with the hope that down the line you will have the money to fund it. Maybe you don’t get everything you want right away but a clear plan, possible money or not, will better prepare everybody for any money that does come, and makes sure that money is spent in the most efficient way possible. This is really sad that they cant seem to get on the same page, true we have more jurisdiction issues then france or germany or japan, but at least with europe the countries need to work together and integrate their HSR plans with the other countries. This is really sad to be honest and I hope they get their collective heads out of the sand sometime soon.

The FRA is one of the more visible symptoms of a broader malaise with our government and indeed our corporate culture. Bureaucracies are entrenched; people intent on dulling their effectiveness are burrowed-in from previous administrations; people are circling the wagons; and special interests benefit from the inevitable roadblocks posed to change by a political system that mal-apportions the Senate, allows filibusters and holds and uses inefficiency as a metaphor for “checks on government abuses of power”. I’m increasingly unsure that it’s wise to even try to deliver major infrastructure projects directly through the federal government.

Block-granting to the states, although we could end up with some awkward mismatches of infrastructure at state borders, is at least a way through the process, directly to a level of government that would mostly be starting from the ground up with developing rail. It reduces the scale of the challenge in Congress. But make no mistake about it — we’re still left with the challenge of ensuring that Congress fairly distributes resources between modes of transport. That’s quite enough on our plate without hoping for coherent planning and regulatory efforts as well.

aw has posted this link in the Keystone Corridor thread, but it’s full of nuggets of wider interest..

After patiently explaining to some Congresscritter that it could add at least 5 and maybe 8 minutes to Northeast Regional schedules to add a desired suburban stop, it tells us on p 17 that bigger plans are afoot:

“Since 2007, Amtrak has been leading the development of a Northeast Corridor Master Plan. It is a collaborative effort between 12 states, 8 commuter operators and all of the region’s primary freight carriers. The initial release and study report is scheduled for this fall.

“The Plan is being crafted to meet the Corridor’s needs over the next 25 years—a period in which ridership is expected to grow by 60 percent and train movements by nearly 40 percent.

“As part of this development process, Amtrak has put forward for general consideration a service concept—likely jointly operated, aimed at meeting shorter-distance intercity market needs for passengers traveling along the NEC. … ”

Something to look forward to indeed — both the plan and the implementation. And it’s understandable that the FRA wasn’t ready to present a national plan when it didn’t even have final input from this forthcoming planning work on the NEC.

Why do I have a feeling that said master plan will include FRA-compliant behemoths, variable-tension catenary electrified at 12 kV, low cants, no curve easements in Connecticut, and 150 mph top speeds?

Alon — That’s what I dread to see in the Master Plan. Down-shifting most Northeast Regional traffic to some “new and improved” local service operated by the commuter lines, on their outside rails. Upgrading the rest of the Regionals traffic by adding more frequencies on the inner two tracks, maybe running “new and improved” Acela-type equipment. Perhaps half-hourly service NYC-DC that could be a few minutes faster than what we see now. Not involving spending many billions on upgrades. But not worldclass HSR.

PS I agree with another site that says Congressmen travel frequently to Wall Street to collect their pay. So they care about the time D.C.-NYC. But they don’t go to Boston and they sure don’t care about curves and bridges in Connecticut.

The Northeast Corridor Master Plan team is two senior managers (Conlow and Kellaway; Kellaway ran the Keystone East upgrade) presumably to provide corporate heft, two guys from Strategic Partnerships whose job is probably herding the cats, and two women from SYSTRA Consulting who are probably writing the plan.

It covers Maine to Virginia. The Amtrak Ink writeup said 11 states; the plan Woody cited said 12 states, so I assume New Hampshire came on board late. In most of these trains are at least partially running on freight lines, so FRA compliant behemoths are likely. Any electrification is likely to be the electrification Kellaway used in Keystone East. There’s supposed to be a multi-stateTrack 2 application implementing at least some NCMP recommendations in MA, RI, CT; if we had a copy of that we’d know about the CT curves. It’s hard to tell about 150 mph top speed: on the one hand, the suggestion in the passage Woody cited of more low speed trains could mean that high speed trains are segregated on their own tracks which would imply they could run faster than 150; on the other there’s another passage in the report (p.43) which talks of a long-range goal of HSR Harrisburg-Pittsburgh as 8 or 10 trains a day 110-150 mph. SYSTRA, though, has been involved in real HSR.

Strictly speaking, you don’t even need NY-Boston. Because the line is electrified, a 165 mph (or 220 mph) Acela could run at high speed from NY to DC, and then at low speed north of NY. NY-DC may be profitable enough to give Amtrak money to upgrade NY-Boston in the future.

However, such a concept requires at least curve easements in Maryland and New Jersey, constant tension catenary, and plans for repealing the FRA’s crash laws for future rolling stock purchases. That should initially bring NY-DC down to about 2:00, to be reduced to 1:30 with further improvements like new rolling stock, a Wilmington bypass, and a new West Baltimore tunnel.

The point about non-compliant equipment is not that passenger rail lines should be separate from freight; it’s that lightweight EMUs perform better at crashes with heavy freight trains than FRA-compliant trains. Caltrain’s done the relevant studies and is petitioning the FRA for an exemption.

Speaking as a retired bureaucrat, I’d be very disappointed in Conlow and Kellaway if the capital cost of their proposal didn’t come out in the same order of magnitude as California HSR wants to get from the Feds. If Congress is prepared to provide on the order of $25-30B to California HSR, then Amtrak ought to ask for the same amount for the Northeast Corridor HSR. If for no other reason than it becomes easier for Congress to provide that sort of money to both coasts than to one.

If we think in terms of that sort of sum, and we think of the Northeast Corridor expansively — from Virginia to Maine — then the curves in Connecticut become rather trivial. Consider the NEC as core and periphery. The core is DC-NY. Northbound trains across the core run through to Boston or to Burlington. Southbound trains across the core run through to Richmond and Hampton Roads. Westbound trains run from the core through Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. Maybe. I’d like to see a plan that read that way. Beef the hell out of DC-NY and double track and electrify the lines off it.

We shall see.

The NEC doesn’t need $25 billion. Even if you tunnel under every bad curve in Connecticut, you get to about $15 billion. More realistically, it can be upgraded to HSR specs for less than $10 billion, if Amtrak can build els over I-95 and US-1 when necessary. The less money it costs, the better: for politicians who live between Sierra Nevada and the Hudson watershed, both California and the East Coast are distinguished from the Heartland and must be defunded whenever possible. Politically speaking, money to California needs to be matched with money to the Midwest and Texas, not the Northeast.

NY-Boston isn’t periphery. It has slightly less ridership than NY-DC, but more than any part of Amtrak off the NEC. It’s electrified, and mostly four-tracked with a few two-track sections.

Here’s a question. Do we need a national rail plan? For reasons of politics and ignorance, we have numerous states doing their best to FIGHT rail investment. The FRA has not been a positive actor for years on this topic.

I am willing to let them be if we can get good, reliable Emerging HSR services in some of the mega-regions and where possible, connect the mega-regions that can be joined with various HSR services.

Any broader policy (let’s call it inter-megapolitan rather than national) should focus on attaching various HSR pieces to one another, such as:

NEC to Charlotte/Washington HSR
NEC to Northern New England
NEC to Empire
Keystone to Midwest HSR efforts
California to Pac NWest, if possible

Maybe we’ll get something better out of FRA after re-authorization. But if not, I don’t know that this is a loss.

Quick food for thought about FRA. Last year, they managed about $40 million in grants and projects. This year they are expected to manage over $8 billion, roughly an increase of 200 times. A National Rail Plan is way overdue, but it is not a question of FRA’s competence as much as it is their capacity to deal with all of it.

Calrailnews is not a credible source of information regarding CAHSR, because Richard Tolmach has an ax to grind and has been making stuff up lately.

“Here’s a question. Do we need a national rail plan? For reasons of politics and ignorance, we have numerous states doing their best to FIGHT rail investment. The FRA has not been a positive actor for years on this topic.”

Well, I think the purpose of it is to get the connections which are missing from the state plans, and to make *national* priorities, of which I will give an example below. :-P

“I am willing to let them be if we can get good, reliable Emerging HSR services in some of the mega-regions and where possible, connect the mega-regions that can be joined with various HSR services….
“Any broader policy (let’s call it inter-megapolitan rather than national) should focus on attaching various HSR pieces to one another, such as:”

The ones you didn’t mention: connecting Cleveland to Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The east coast/midwest connection is vitally important, missing from most plans, and the Cleveland-Pittsburgh has widespread support among the municipalities on the way — it may even get done before Pittsburgh-Philly.

And for an example of the need for *national* priorities, look no further than Chicago-Cleveland. Ohio is making Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati its priority, because it’s all in Ohio. Illinois is making Chicago-St. Louis its priority, because it’s all in Illinois. Detroit is working on the “mostly Michigan” route from Chicago to Detroit.

However, the biggest bang for the buck would be Chicago-Toledo via Indiana, continuing to Cleveland and Detroit. Unfortunately this goes across the “rail funding dead zone” of Indiana. It would be better for Michigan than the current Detroit line, better for Ohio than the “3C” line, better for Illinois than the Chicago-St. Louis line, and obviously better for Indiana — and would benefit long-distance services to New York and Washington, DC! — but because most of the infrastructure would have to be built in the state which “isn’t interested”, it’s been on the slow track.

*This* is what a national plan is needed for. Getting the damn Indiana tracks built. Chicago-Gary-Ft.Wayne-Toledo with continuing service to Detroit and Cleveland should be one of the top rail priorities in the country, and *it isn’t because it’s multi-state and one of the states isn’t playing ball*.

Alon, I think your numbers are unrealistically low on the NEC. Replacing aged infrastructure like the old catenary and the Baltimore tunnels is not the only problem; the line is significantly short of capacity. I suggest you go and look at MARC’s plans for upgrading the Penn Line. Probably also Network Rail’s numbers in Britain on the West Coast Main Line once they figured out that they had much more than a signaling problem on their hands.

And I don’t know about you but I think there’s something to be said for jim’s bicoastal political approach. It gives California cover and it brings many more states’ skin into the game of doing the job properly.

the line is significantly short of capacity

It’s significantly short of cars and locomotives, it’s got plenty of tracks except between Elizabeth NJ and Sunnyside in Queens NY. There some tight spots in Westchester and Fairfield county between NY and New Haven. The rest of the way there’s room for four tracks. In many places it’s only two tracks now.

The trains are crowded and sometime standing room only because they run short trains and only once an hour. Right now the peak hour in NY sees 4 Amtrak trains, an Acela, a Regional, a Keystone corridor and a long distance train. They’d have to triple the number of trains before they were even close to having capacity problems on two tracks. There’s a Empire Corridor train too be that’s only using capacity at Penn Station, otherwise it’s not on the NEC.

Jim @17, I like thinking of the NEC expansively, but in my mind it reaches down to Charlotte. Boardman has been quoted that he wants D.C.-Richmond electrified. But North Carolina is as ready with Charlotte-Raleigh as Virginia is with D.C-Richmond-Hampton Roads. NC has asked for $3 or $4 Bil, add a few billion more and electrify all the way to Charlotte. Electrify NYC-Albany. Electrify New Haven-Hartford-Springfield.

Adirondacker @ 24 says the NEC is significantly short of cars and locomotives. And haven’t I heard that the Acela equipment isn’t holding up so well?

That gets us to the brink of a huge order for new equipment for many trains to run on the expansive NEC, and half hourly service on the core. Now for sure we’re talking a total package for the East Coast that easily balances California’s figure.

Googling around, I found this:…/Paul%20Nissenbaum%2006-05-2006.ppt

It’s a brief by Paul Nissenbaum (and Amtrak person) to NASTO in the summer of 2006. Of interest are slides 2 and 15. Slide 2 shows the Northeast Rail Network, from Amtrak’s point of view. Bounded on the north by Toronto and Montreal, on the east by Portland, on the west by Buffalo and Pittsburgh, on the south by Richmond and Newport News. North Carolina isn’t even on the map. Slide 15 shows the capacity constraints on the DC-Boston NEC mainline. The entire Baltimore-Washington segment is colored red: congested, two/three track. The Hudson tunnels: running at two minute headways. The Metro-North RoW between New Rochelle and New Haven: heavy traffic — Amtrak limited to two slots per hour. This capacity constraint is, perhaps, more important than the speed limits. I assume it’s the reason that Acela service is no more than hourly: Amtrak gets two slots, one for regional, one for Acela. It will be interesting to see how the NCMP plans to deal with this.

By the way, Nissenbaum is now with FRA. He’s the Director, Passenger Rail and Freight Programs. One of the people who’ll be deciding how to distribute the $8B. It’s a small tight world.

Meanwhile, lemme say anything Amtrak had in mind for south of the Potomac in 2006 is outdated in several ways.

Both NC and VA have continued to work — and spend — to upgrade their passenger rail services and plans. They are both more ready to join the expansive NEC now than a few years ago.

Importantly, in 2008, both NC and VA gave their electoral votes to Obama. A case could be made that they are now Mid-Atlantic if not quite Northeastern!

And if Amtrak didn’t invite NC to the NEC planning group, its politicians should crash that party.

DBX: I should probably say now that my numbers don’t include increasing North River Tunnel capacity. This is because ARC, flawed as it is, will be enough for Amtrak’s purposes, and is already funded elsewhere.

The sections at capacity in Maryland will have to be bypassed anyway – there are some curves that can’t be eased, for example near Perryville. Add that to a new Baltimore tunnel, and you get enough four-track sections that Amtrak could run a large number of trains together with MARC, given some schedule discipline. There aren’t actually that many two-track sections that need to be four-tracked at all, and even fewer that have to be four-tracked initially.

The RFP Mainline and the S line reaching down to Charlotte North Carolina should be offically declared a part of the NEC.

The NEC could be viewed as Amtrack’s Beast of burden in that it makes the most money on the system and carries the most railroad traffic anywere in the US. It might even be taking in more money then Amtrack is spending to keep it running. But like all beasts of burden it does get tired and worn out after a while and needs some up grades along some sections of it. Amtrack should replace all the old double track bridges between New York and Washingtion with four track bridges. They could keep the catenary wire up to date and they should look at removing some of the bottle necks at the tunnels. To at least get the avarge up from 68 and 80 to 110 and 130 though out the whole corrdor would be a good start. They need to spend more resources on Boston to New York and Washingtion to Richmond along with extending the Pennsyvinia Catenary wires south to Richmond and to Pitsburg .

Sadly, the RF&P, formerly owned by a company with a significant percentage of Virginia state government control, was sold off to CSX lock stock & barrel not long ago. This was stupid and it will end up needing to be bought back at higher prices than the prices necessary to buy out CSX’s former *partial* interest.

I must rush to the defense of the FRA here. They are most definitely *not* incompetent, although clearly there are legitimate frustrations and their pace and inexperience in this new program. But they know railroads and with the exception of the high-speed grant program there is no doubt that they have functioned efficiently and effectively. Since the grant program is new, one could argue that any effort would have gone about the same way. Clearly their pace has not met expectations, but they have not had staff resources and I think it would have gone this way for any agency that had done this. Their awards were balanced and sensible and clearly informed by on the ground political and railroading knowledge.

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