Tuesday, September 14, 2010

USA Rail 2010 - Day 2

DENVER, Colo. -- Today begins day 2 of the USA Rail 2010 Conference here in Denver. On the slate for today are sessions on smarter rail planning, high-speed rail and communications, signaling and train control. As with yesterday, check back throughout the day for updates as the day progresses.

3:55 p.m. – Gil Carmichael wraps-up the conference with his thoughts on the future of rail in the United States by noting the significant scope of issues facing both passenger and freight rail in the years ahead. Proclaims the 21st century to be an "intermodal century," to flow seamlessly from one system to another. Just beginning to construct the system to clean up the disconnects to produce a safe and reasonably cost railroad system.

3:18 p.m. – To close the conference on a technical perspective, the final panel considers the operational aspects of communications systems, train signaling networks and positive train control (PTC). Keith Szewczyk of Ansaldo-STS moderated an provided an overview of PTC technology. Through the technology, train movements are monitored by on-board and wayside computer systems and can assume control of the train if an incursion occurs. PRIIA of 2008 included a provision to integrate PTC on most of the nation's railroads by 2015.

Eileen Reilly, the Chief Information and Technology Officer of the Alaska Railroad Corporation, described her railroad's efforts beginning in 1996 to improve its safety and communications systems on a voluntary basis. At the time, some elements of their network even utilized vacuum tubes. Now, prepared to implement PTC provisions by 2013. Challenge is even though the railroad will never connect to any other railroads, it still strives for its equipment and infrastructure that is interoperable with standards throughout the industry.

Jeff Young of the Union Pacific Railroad noted that while his railroad was moving forward with PTC provisions before the PRIIA, the interoperability requirements have provided significant challenges. While the long-term benefits of PTC will likely improve conditions for the Class I railroads, the up-front capital costs of the technology are significant. The layover of new technology on existing signaling and communications presents notable risks in terms of reliability.

Finally, Dr. Mark Hartong of the Federal Railroad Administration, admits the PRIAA-directed PTC provisions is a non-trivial task for the Administration, railroads and many other stakeholders. 3 issues for PTC compliance: interoperability, installation of communications infrastructure (and appropriate capacity where wireless communications is congested), and the scope of the effort.

2:30 p.m. – Focusing the high-speed rail discussion closer to Denver and the Rocky Mountain region is the next panel, looking at new intercity options to parallel the increasingly congested Interstates 70 and 25. Anthony DeVito from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) provided an update on CDOT's efforts to improve multimodal options along the I-70 corridor. Efforts are building off the successful completion of the TREX project in Denver. Will be initiating passenger and freight rail plans for Colorado, as well as a state high-speed rail plan.

Harry Dale, Chairman and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority, described his agency's work involving 52 Colorado jurisdictions to introduce and improve intercity passenger rail service. Looking at feasible rail corridors paralleling the I-70 and I-25 routes, connections between north/south (I-25) and east/west (I-70) are essential. Meanwhile, because of 75 mph speed limits on Colorado highways, even 110 mph service is just competitive with auto travel times. Highway corridors offer better ridership opportunities than existing freight rail lines. Geography in the region presents steep grade challenges for new alignments, along with environmental concerns. Because of the already significant amount of new infrastructure required, maglev technology would be a favorable option.

Kevin Cotes, Executive Director of the North American Maglev Institute, discussed the possibilities offered by maglev technology in the I-70 and I-25 corridors. Highlighted the low life-cycle and maintenance costs germane to the mode, and why it might be the best option for the new alignments and steep grades

2:02 p.m. – Mike Murray of the Illinois Governor's Office described the state's rail transportation policy initiatives and especially the Chicago – St. Louis high-speed corridor. As a part of a larger midwest regional rail system, the route will be the most visible element of a long-term effort to improve service throughout the region. Project is expected to create 57,000 permanent jobs throughout the midwest upon completion. Small improvements in frequency, trip time and reliability can significantly improve ridership, as evidenced by recent gains by Amtrak's Hiawatha and Chicago - St. Louis corridor services. Now working with other states in the region and communities to speak with a single vision, which resulted in $2.6 billion in ARRA investment for high-speed and intercity passenger rail in the region. And while true high-speed rail service at 220 mph service is a desirable long-term goal, improvements to 110 mph service is achievable now to build ridership and familiarity with rail travel. Notes similarities with Madrid - Seville corridor in Spain; didn't happen overnight, but rather with incremental improvements. Economic development efforts can't wait for full high-speed rail.
Image from Midwest High Speed Rail Association
1:55 p.m. – Greg Hanna of the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) presented his agency's findings and recommendations in regards to high-speed rail. Those recommendations include establishing goals for the investment, establish the roles of the various participants in the public and private sectors, and establish where investment will come from and how fund are distributed. Those aspects are informed by and dependent on each other. He noted that unless a dedicated revenue stream is established for federal investment in passenger rail is established, those funds will have to compete with other programs.

12:10 p.m. – Beyond Florida's high-speed rail project is a broader campaign to introduce high or higher speed services around the nation. In a session moderated by Lewis Geotz – a founder and board member of the American High Speed Rail Alliance – the panel considered the definition of high-speed rail, implementing projects, sustainability of high-speed rail, ridership forecasts and the role of Amtrak.

Geotz noted that both the funding and ridership elements of the various projects are essential aspects of high-speed rail's viability. Meanwhile, the American reality of high-speed rail is a bit different than systems elsewhere in the world and our unique situation must be accounted for, and described the FTA definitions of emerging, regional and express high-speed rail designations.

Jamie Rall from the National Conference of State Legislatures referenced her organization's high-speed rail working group and the major role of states in high-speed and intercity passenger rail. That tole in supporting capital projects and the operation of systems, and federal investment is only a recent development. Many obstacles for states including budget challenges, constitutional previsions and limited resources and staff. "Many states who want these systems and consider them a priority may be unable to do their part. Need permanent, direct and sustainable support of federal support."

Petra Todorovich, Director of America 2050, views high-speed rail as a "transformative, region-shaping investment." Riderships is the key to sustainability of high-speed rail projects, not only in terms of operating revenues, but also general political and public support. Underlying benefits are (economic development, environmental protection, etc) impossible without strong ridership. Factors that contribute to ridership: level of service (frequency, trip times, reliability, comfort); regional elements (population, spatial distribution/density, employment concentration/composition of labor markets, network effects); transit system connections; proven intercity market for corridor (air travel, road congestion, existing rail ridership); and competition (other service options in the corridor, price of fuel/tolls, vehicle ownership).

Quentin Kopp, a Board Member of the California High Speed Rail Authority, described some of the lessons learned so far through the project, and why the state has set its sights on 220 mph service. Kopp introduced several pieces of legislation in the California State Legislature during his service in that body that ultimately led to the Authority's creation in 1996 as a separate governmental entity, with work conducted under contract by private entities. Project is on-schedule despite lawsuits and funding challenges. Project phases: San Francisco - San Jose to Los Angeles (500 miles), adopted in 2006 by Authority. 2nd phase; from San Diego to Los Angeles and Merced to Sacramento. Total: 800 miles. Project lessons: select equipment as early as possible; be mindful of political turnover; don't underestimate the need for early and consistent public relations; avoid legislative limitations to project momentum (ie. subsidy prevention, grade crossing separation, elimination of station); and don't be intimidated by "secret forces" intent on stopping high-speed rail.

11:12 a.m. – An eclectic panel looks at the connection between people and cargo in development projects. By co-locating the passenger and freight elements of transportation in well-designed facilities, improved efficiencies and private investment could be realized to support projects with substantial community benefits. Catherine Cox Blair of Reconnecting America moderated the panel and presented an overview of transit-oriented development districts. People who live near transit are 5 times as likely to take transit.

Maria Choca-Urban of the Center for Neighborhood Technology mentioned the mixed-use industrial development that occurs around freight transportation assets, which they term cargo-oriented development (COD). When working together, TOD and COD can combine to support communities built around railroad infrastructure, such as those in Chicagoland, including Blue Island and Harvey, which are both served by Metra commuter rail and freight railroads.

Jack Wierzenski, Director of Economic Development and Planning for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, described his agency's transit-oriented development efforts (note: see our full-length feature article on DART in RAIL Edition #13) and how models from those projects will inform their future light-rail extensions and new commuter rail services, such as the Cotton Belt line. From the rail transit agency perspective, development opportunities present revenue opportunities to support service operation and expansion. Land values from DART TOD projects increased for residential spaces by 39 percent and office space over 50 percent, bringing hundreds of millions additional tax revenues to local and state governments.

Scott Johnson, the Vice President for Public Infrastructure at Mincom – a asset management software provider for rail and transit providers – explained how a standard maintenance and safety management strategy is essential to successful TOD projects. Due to the number of moving parts, coordinating those elements is often overlooked.

10:22 a.m. – Nazih Haddad, CEO of Florida Rail Enterprise, presents on the forthcoming Orlando – Tampa high-speed rail corridor, likely to be the first in the nation. Began to change with Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008 and strengthened by American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. Florida was ready to respond to ARRA opportunity because of previous planning work. State legislature's first special session ever was called in December 2009 to consider (and approve) state investment in passenger rail, which also initiated support for Orlando's SunRail project. First record of decision by FRA for high-speed rail in nation's history. State's passenger rail effort is part of DOT, not separate from. Extensive details on the Tampa – Orlando project, for which the state already owns 93% of right-of-way. Frequency: hourly. Ridership: 2.3 million annually. Maximum speed: 168 mph. Connectivity will be essential, from light rail and commuter rail to airport access.

10:01 a.m. – Amtrak's Bruce Hillblom notes how efforts to address climate change interact with Amtrak's interest in promoting mobility alternatives such as passenger rail. Rail (both passenger and freight) inherently enjoys an environmental advantage because of its efficiency and low efficiency. Amtrak hopes to become even more environmentally-friendly while also increasing its market share. Some efforts include increased electrification, use of bio fuels (ie. Heartland Flyer,see image below) lightweight equipment, reduction of engine idling and more energy-efficient locomotives. "The cheapest gallon of fuel is the one you don't use."
Heartland Flyer bio fuel locomotive
9:43 a.m. – Looking at generating revenue through sustainable practices, Colin Peppard from the Natural Resources Defense Council discussed new paradigms in climate protection through transportation mechanisms. Paradigms include fuel policy, emissions reduction and land use. New environmentally-friendly business practices can be new profit centers. Cites CEO's for Cities "Green Dividend"study of the benefits to communities and its residents through more efficient transportation networks; green as in economic and environmental.

9:12 a.m. – James Hertwig, CEO of the Florida East Coast Railway (a Class II railroad) explains his railroad's business growth in Florida and their interaction with the state's port facilities in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Miami (see map below). He also noted their efforts to improve connections with Class I freight carriers in Jacksonville (CSX and Norfolk Southern), and their work with Amtrak to introduce regular intercity passenger rail service between Jacksonville and Miami. "Both passenger and freight rail are aligned in their interests to reduce congestion and improve environmental impacts of transportation." First freight railroad to utilize automatic train control along its route. The railroad also is a member of the Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay program. Passenger stations along the route will be key to a successful service in the future; need to be well-located, secure and enticing to all types of travelers (including restaurants and business amenities such as wireless internet). Also looking at commuter rail service from Jupiter to Miami along the railroad.
Florida East Coast Railway
9:00 a.m. – Gil Carmichael gets the day underway again, recapping yesterday's sessions and discussing the National Center for Intermodal Transportation's recent white paper on a national rail plan.

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