Posts Tagged ‘Federal Railroad Administration’

Shutdown to Have Minimal Effect on Railroads

January 22, 2018

The federal government shutdown that began on Saturday is not expected to have much effect on railroad operations.

Federal safety and oversight oriented agencies such as the Federal Railroad Administration, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and Surface Transportation Board have designated “excepted” employees to perform accident investigations and equipment inspections related to the safety of human life and to issue emergency service orders.

However, those employees will not receive paychecks or be reimbursed for their travel expenses while the shutdown continues.

During past shutdowns, Congress agreed to grant back pay and travel reimbursements after the shutdown ended.

The heads of the agencies are presidential appointees and thus exempt from being furloughed.

Under federal law, presidential appointees have an absolute entitlement to their salaries. If needed, they can use the federal Court of Claims to get paid.

The FRA said that 487 of its 929 employees, including some in the legal department, are excepted from being furloughed due to their responsibilities for safety inspections, investigations, writing emergency orders and representing the agency in court.

Such day-to-day operations as management of federal grants and environmental reviews will not be performed during the shutdown.

Most STB operations will be on hold during the shutdown, but it provides a telephone number to be called “if you believe you have an emergency that requires immediate Board action” such as an emergency service orders.

Amtrak will continue its regular operations during the shutdown. The passenger carrier’s federal funding comes in large block grants that are sufficient to enable it to continue operating.ro

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Minnesota Rail Study Halted

January 9, 2018

Two Minnesota lawmakers have effectively ended an environmental study of the feasibility of high-speed passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee.

Rep. Paul Torkelson and Senator Scott Newman, both Republicans, and chairmen of the transportation committees in their respective chambers, objected to the Minnesota Department of Transportation accepting federal grant money for the study.

Calling it a waste of taxpayer money, the legislators said that the State of Wisconsin opposes high-speed rail.

“Minnesota should not be squandering precious tax dollars — whether local, state or federal — on a wasteful project actively opposed by other states whose support is necessary to proceed,” the legislators wrote in a letter to the commissioner of the Department of Management and Budget.

Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office confirmed that the study has been halted even though $1 million in state and federal funding has already been spent on it.

The Minnesota lawmakers were objecting to MnDOT spending another $181,682 being provided by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Krom said the study would have created a “framework for the environmental process moving forward and start looking at some general issues. We didn’t get to any detail; this was just the initial money to get the project started.”

More detailed studies were expected to be conducted at a later date.

Funding for the study originated in 2009 during a economic stimulus program started by the Obama Administration.

Wisconsin was to have received $810 million for a Madison-to-Milwaukee service. However, Republican Scott Walker refused the money after being elected in 2010, saying the service would be too expensive to build and maintain.

Governors in Ohio and Florida also refused rail project stimulus money and the funds were re-directed to other states.

Although Wisconsin continues to fund conventional Amtrak service between Milwaukee and Chicago, Walker continues to oppose high-speed rail service.

“It would be rather inappropriate for us to spend federal funds when there’s no chance of it going forward,” Torkelson said.

Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association said it was shortsighted for Minnesota to end its study, which he called “a basic assessment” to understand what’s needed.

“It’s really just fixing the existing track so you can run things faster and more frequently,” he said.

Janice Rettman, a Ramsey County commissioner who is chair of the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission, called ending the study regrettable.

Senator Scott Dibble, a member of the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, called the decision unfortunate.

“Do they only want people to have cars and drive? They have a complete disregard for other modes of transportation,” he said.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari  said that although faster and more-frequent trains help build ridership, reliability is the most-important attribute in luring more passengers.

MnDOT has been eying a second daily round-trip passenger train to supplement the existing Amtrak service between the Twin Cities and Chicago via Milwaukee. With funding and political support, that service could begin operation in 2022.

Torkelson contended that he does not oppose “anything that is economically viable. You need to use resources in a fashion with projects that actually have a chance of getting done.”

Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder is the only rail service between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.

FRA Releases Texas High-Speed Report

January 8, 2018

After a four-year process, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a draft environmental impact statement that identifies a preferred route for a Dallas-Houston high-speed rail line.

The line would be developed by Texas Central Partners, which will now be able to begin the process of land acquisition for construction of the line.

The proposed service would link the two cities in less than 90 minutes with trains traveling at better than 200 mph.

“This is the biggest milestone to date that we’ve crossed so far,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Partners.

A public comment period on the draft statement period is open through February 20, 2018.

Comments received will be processed by the FRA before it releases a final environmental impact statement.

Negative comments are expected to be made pertaining to land acquisition, environmental health, and that Houston’s station would be too far north of the city for some.

PTC Progress Has Been Uneven

December 27, 2017

Less than a quarter of passenger rail lines have positive train control systems in operation on the track that they own, the Federal Railroad Administration reported.

The FRA said freight railroads have implanted PTC on 45 percent of their route miles that are required to have it.

The figures show progress through Sept. 30. The FRA has given conditional certification to eight of 37 railroads required to implement PTC by a Dec. 31, 2018, deadline.

There are 41 railroads that must meet that deadline.

The FRA date showed that 68 percent of freight and 50 percent of passenger locomotive fleets have PTC controls. It also showed that 82 percent of freight and 66 percent of passenger railroad employees have received PTC training.

Among freight railroads, BNSF has made the most progress while among transit systems, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is nearly ready.

A handful of railroads have reported making little to no progress in installing and implementing PTC.

States Balk at FRA Passenger Safety Plan Rule

December 27, 2017

Transportation officials in several states are resisting a Federal Railroad Administration rule that requires passenger carriers to develop a System Safety Plan.

The states are not opposed to safety plans per se, but object to who is responsible for the plans, particularly in cases in which a state owns the rails over which a carrier such as Amtrak operates.

The FRA rule applies to “states, state agencies and instrumentalities, and political subdivisions of states that own [but do not necessarily operate]” railroads, railroad equipment, or provide financial support for passenger trains.

An analysis published on the website of Trains magazine observed that states are arguing that safety is the purview of the railroad tenant, not the landlord, and forcing a state to create a safety plan imposes a financial burden.

Some states have contended that they lack the experience and expertise to create safety plans. The Vermont Agency of Transportation, which owns a portion of the route used by Amtrak’s Downeaster said that its officials aren’t even allowed on the right-of-way without the railroad’s permission.

Also protesting to the FRA have been the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin joint power authorities in California, Indiana Department of Transportation, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The FRA issued the rule in August 2016, saying that an “intercity passenger railroad” must create a safety plan that “continually and systematically evaluates railroad safety hazards on its system and manages the resulting risks to reduce the number and rates of railroad accidents, incidents, injuries, and fatalities.”

The deadline for creation of these safety plans has been delayed five times in the past 16 months. It is now set to take effect in December 2018.

Some states have also said the rule raises a constitutional question of how far the federal government can go to regulate state behavior.

“In opening the door to application of its [safety plan] rule … the FRA plainly has overreached its grant of enabling authority from Congress,” the Vermont petition states. “Moreover, by exposing such state entities with the untoward consequences of ‘railroad carrier’ status, the FRA will have a chilling effect on activities encouraged by Congress …” including state acquisition of lines threatened by abandonment.

In the meantime, Amtrak said it continues to create its own safety plan. “We are taking action independent of the stay of the rule. We are building a Safety Management System which includes the development of a System Safety Program,” an Amtrak spokeswoman said.

FRA Clears Brightline Service to Orlando

December 19, 2017

The Federal Railroad Administration has cleared the way for Brightline to operate to Orlando, Florida.

The FTA last week issued a record of decision on the Final Environmental Impact Statement it released in 2015.

That will enable Brightline to begin constructing a route from West Palm Beach to a new terminal at Orlando International Airport.

Brightlight will use Florida East Coast tracks Cocoa, Florida, and lay new rails to the airport.

The Cocoa-airport line is expected to have sealed track and a top speed of 125 mph. It will be built adjacent to the Beachline Expressway.

A second track and safety appliances are being installed on the FEC route that will allow a top speed of 110 mph.

Recent news reports have indicated that Brightlight is testing service between

West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and is expected to launch revenue service within a few weeks.

Brightline Making Test Runs

December 7, 2017

Brightline plans to operate simulated service this month between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Florida, in a dress rehearsal for revenue service.

The company recently issued an advisory that it would operate 10 roundtrips to simulate its service.

Brightline has yet to say when revenue service will began. Nor has it released any details about fare structure, departure times and onboard services.

The test trains will operate at a top speed of 79 mph on a route that recently received a second track and has been freight only.

Owned by the Florida East Coast, the 66-mile route between West Palm Beach and Miami hosts freight trains running at a top speed of 40 mph primarily during the night.

Brightline has worked with towns along its route at bringing many grade crossings into compliance with Federal Railroad Administration “quiet zone” requirements.

The FRA is requiring additional testing to review the positive train control overlay of FEC’s signal system in Brightline’s Charger locomotive cabs during operating conditions.

Ann Arbor Park Commission Favors Putting New Amtrak Station, Parking Garage in Fuller Park

October 19, 2017

An advisory committee has accepted an environmental study favoring building a new Amtrak station in a park in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Despite some opposition, the Park Advisory Commission voted 6-2 in favor of agreeing that the use of Fuller Park for the station would have a minimal impact on the park.

The environmental assessment was conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration and favors putting the station in Fuller Park rather than building along Depot Street.

The commission serves as an advisory body to the Ann Arbor City Council.

The FRA had made a preliminary determination that there would be minimal effect on the park from building an Amtrak station elevated above the railroad tracks and an adjacent parking garage.

The station site would be in the footprint of an existing parking lot in the park along the south side of Fuller Road in front of the University of Michigan hospital.

The city council must now concur that building the station would have a minimal effect on the park.

City officials have said that 3.2 acres (5.4 percent) of Fuller Park would experience permanent impacts from construction associated with the station.

Several members of a grassroots citizens group called Protect A2 Parks argued against the minimal effect designation and in favor of situating the new station along Depot Street, where the current Amtrak station is located.

Protect A2 Parks member Rita Mitchell said a Depot Street site would be more likely to favor improved transit and train travel.

Mitchell also contended that a parking garage in the park would be unsightly.

Citing the parks master plan, Mitchell said there are just 4.53 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents in the central area of the city compared to a rate of 18.52 citywide.

Nancy Shiffler and James D’Amour of the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club said using park property for a transportation facility sets a bad precedent.

“Fuller Park is an essential river-valley park providing some of the remaining open viewshed to the valley. There is no way to replace this value,” Shiffler said.

D’Amour, a former city planning commissioner, expressed fear that there could be more proposals to repurpose city parkland. He called for protection of parkland for future generations.

Vince Caruso, another member of Protect A2 Parks, said a station in Fuller Park would be too far away from Ann Arbor’s activity centers.

He said a Depot Street location would be more walkable to downtown. He also said placing the station in Fuller Park would restrict economic development around the station.

“So if we wanted shops — coffee shops, stores, small shops in the vicinity of the station like you normally would see — Fuller doesn’t really allow that,” he said.

Park Commission member Alan Jackson, who voted in favor of the resolution, said he suspects that if the portion of Fuller Park in question was ranked using the city’s parkland acquisition criteria “it would rank exceedingly low and we wouldn’t want to acquire it.”

Commission member David Santacroce, who also favored the resolution, expressed hesitation about second guessing the work of experts who decided that Fuller Park is the best location for the station. He also said the site of the station would still be needed for parking for the park.

Ruth Kraut, who voted against the resolution, retorted she’s not sure it would always have to be a parking lot, saying some have argued the site has been a parking lot for too long and should be transformed into green space.

“I feel there are other alternatives. I’m not convinced this is the best alternative, even if it weren’t parkland,” she said.

Chicago Suburbs Still Concerned About Hiawatha Expansion

October 18, 2017

Residents in north suburban Chicago are still concerned about a proposal to expand Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service and they aired their grievances during a public hearing held last week.

That meeting was sponsored by the cities of Lake Forest, Glenview, Northbrook, Bannockburn and Deerfield.

Most of those who attended expressed concern about a proposal to add a siding on which freight trains would wait to be passed by Amtrak and Metra commuter trains.

They are worried about matters of noise, pollution and quality of life issues.

In particular, the residents are concerned about idling Canadian Pacific freight locomotives and they thought that those speaking at the meeting were not viewing the situation from the perspective of nearby homeowners.

“They just presented a railroad perspective,” said JoAnn Desmond, president of the Academy Woods Homeowners’ Association. “They didn’t tell us anything about whether it would be safe, or reduce our property value.”

Another homeowner, Greg Billie of Glenview, said the presenters “didn’t address any of the things we came for”

Judy Beck, former president of the Glenview Park District Board, said there was nothing wrong with the presentations, “but they need to balance it out with what the community needs are.”

Lake Forest City Manager Bob Kiely, who helped organize the hearing, said there has yet to be much discussion of “the underlying issue of freight traffic. And this is an opportunity to learn more about the future of freight traffic.”

Some who attended the hearing cited a March 15 derailment in Lake Forest of tanker cars carrying molten sulfur. None of the derailed cars leaked.

The Federal Railroad Administration is undertaking an environmental impact statement of the proposed Hiawatha expansion and the infrastructure changes is would need. That study is not expected to be completed until early 2018.

Some had the hearing said the panelists failed to explain enough detail about the expansion project.

Northbrook Village Manager Rich Nahrstadt said later that he wasn’t surprised by that.

“When all the city managers got together, we thought we’d try to answer some of the questions that came up about freight during the public hearings,” on the Hiawatha project, he said. “We didn’t plan it to be a replication of the public hearings.”

Panelists did, though, indicate that the proposed siding is needed to avoid rail congestion.

The project also envisions a new overpass over Shermer Road south of Northbrook.

Northbrook Village President Sandy Frum said that early discussions have indicated that freights trains waiting for passenger trains would sit south of Techny Road in an industrial area.

“The answers we’re getting – and this is not confirmed – is that it would actually improve the crossing at Techny (Road) and we would actually have less blockage,” Frum said. “If that’s the case, and it really doesn’t impact Northbrook residents, this is a decision that’s not too hard to make.”

Frum said that the decisions about train operations will be made by the railroads working with federal and state officials.

“Ultimately, freight trains are not going away, despite how much we might wish them to go away,” Frum said. “The thing to do now is to figure out the next step.”

Hearings Begin on Washington-Richmond Corridor

October 12, 2017

Hearings are underway regarding the draft environmental report for a proposed higher-speed rail line between Washington and Richmond, Virginia.

Conducting the hearings are the Federal Railroad Administration and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The first hearings were held this week with additional hearings set for Oct. 17, 18 and 19.
The report, issued, last month, calls for increasing maximum train speeds from 69 mph to 79 mph between Washington and Fredericksburg, Virginia, and to 90 mph between Fredericksburg and Richmond.

The 123-mile D.C.-to-Richmond corridor is part of the 500-mile Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor between Washington and Atlanta.

The report also recommends infrastructure improvements that would allow for nine additional daily passenger-rail trips between the two cities.