TRB rail stuff

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Apr 5, 2011
Baltimore. MD
Here's a summary of some stuff I heard at a number of the committee meetings held at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) meeting in Washington last week.

For background, the TRB is a constituent of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine that provides scientific advice on topics related to transportation. It was founded about 100 years ago to advise state and local highway departments. While they get a lot of Federal funding, they are an independent non-profit NGO that operates a lot like federal advisory committees. The annual meeting contains both presentations of original scientific research and a whole lot of various committee meetings, among which are a number that deal with rail transport. This year, there weren't many research papers submitted on passenger rail, so the time at the meeting I spent on rail topics was mostly limited to attending committee meetings. These included the Passenger Rail Comittee, the State Rail Plan Committee, and the Rolling Stock and Motive Power committee. While a lot of these meetings are mostly boring committee business of interest only to members (I'm a "friend" of these committees, not a member), they also have presentations that can be interesting. There are also sometimes interesting discussions among the members of the committee, mostly on making recommendation for research needs, which gives one an idea of the current technical questions in the field.

The Passenger Rail committee had presentations by Lyle Lietelt of FRA about the Amtrak Long Distance Study and by Jason Beloso of Washington State DOT providing a Pacific Northwest Passenger rail update. There wasn't a whole lot to report about the FRA long distance study, as it seems that they're gearing up to do it, but no results yet. However, they're supposed to have report for Congress by next fall. Mr. Lietelt did mention that he thought this was the first FRA passenger rail study that was designed to look at expanding long-distance service, not cutting it back. Somebody for the audience made a pitch to FRA to be sure to consider what it would take to restore the National Limited in some form or another. The response was that it would be, as that's within the scope to the study. In the Northwest, it seems they're planning the restore the second Seattle-Vancouver Cascades train by the spring and to have 6 round trips on the Seattle - Portland run of the Cascades. He didn't mention anything about plans for cross-state daylight corridor service between Seattle and Spokane. The talk was rounded out by some general discussion of a proposed Pacific Northwest High Speed rail service, which seems like it's still in the initial planning stages. He did state pretty directly that the high-speed rail plans are not designed to replace the Cascades service, but to supplement it.

The meeting of the Rolling Stock and Motive Power committee was more free-form discussion that included stuff that would be of interest to those on AU, as they spoke mostly about passenger car rolling stock. I got the best jargon term from the meeting here: "railcar - platform interface." That is, designing railcars and platforms for level boarding, which would speed schedules by reducing dwell time. With regard to electrification of motive power, most of the speakers seemed to be focusing on the idea of "intermittent catenary," where an electric locomotive pulls a tender with a very high capacity battery, where the tenders can either be swapped out at "recharging points" and catenary can be installed over sections where the locomotives deed to draw a lot of power, such as in crossing mountain ranges. It's like going back to the old days, where the locomotives have fuel tenders and some railroads (hi there Milwaukee Road!) electrified their service across the mountains. Someone gave an interesting talk pitching "unattended operation" Metro services. He pointed out that a lot of subways lines in Europe and Asia are moving in this direction, starting with Line 1 of the Paris Metro, and also that even in this country automated people movers are pretty common at major airports. Aside from the cost savings from not having to hire operators, he claims that under automated operation they could run shorter trains more frequently thus providing more useful service. Of course, those of us who ride the DC Metro Red Line might have some other ideas about this. :)

The state rail programs committee had some discussion about the issue of bureaucratic process delaying the awarding and executing of state grants for infrastructure improvements. Often, the projects get finished before the grant can be awarded. Some of the projects are so obvious that the railroad is going to pay for it anyway, which might beg the question of why they need government funding in the first place. On the other hand, for a true bureaucrat, leaving money on the table is never a good idea because that might give the politicians an excuse to cut the appropriation next year. One improvement that most of the members though was a good idea for funding was the elimination of grade crossings. Aside from the obvious safety issues, some of the state reps expressed concern about long trains cutting off multiple roadways in a single town. There was a rep from BNSF who gave what I think are the Class 1 talking points for longer trains: That they are more fuel efficient, thus cutting GHG emissions and that with longer trains, there will be fewer of them passing through towns, thus (possibly) reducing the number of times per day that the crossings are blocked. In any event, TRB is conducting a "consensus study" on the issue of "trains longer than 7,500 feet," which will provide expert recommendations to DOT and Congress. There was not much said in the meeting about insufficient length of sidings and interference with passenger trains, but the charge of the TRB study includes those issues. There's supposed to be a meeting on Thursday Jan 20 of this committee, and at least parts of it are supposed to be open, but the announcement has no information on how to attend the meeting, just a contact to the NAS staffer. As someone who managed Federal Advisory Committees at times in my career, I'm not too impressed with this.

That's it for this year. I may make another post in the "other transportation modes" forum about the stuff I learned about electric cars.