A quick primer on CBTC and driverless trains

While doing some research for an article about driverless trains, I came across this document by Mircea Georgescu (who most recently worked at Thales [I think?] and whose email I can’t track down! Mircea, if you’re reading this, trimite-mi si mie te rog frumos un email la smithsj@gmail.com!), that’s a sort of primer on CBTC and its application in driverless train operation. The paper is very short as far as these things go, and surprisingly readable, even if Mircea’s English ain’t the best. You can download the PDF here, and here’s the abstract:

Reliable driverless operation requires specific features implemented at system and subsystem levels of the train control system. Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) is now proven as the best choice for driverless systems due to inherent high levels of safety and reliability with a low life cycle cost. This paper proposes a systematic approach that may be used to determine the most efficient way to fulfil the requirements specific to each customer faced with driverless operation (green field or re-signaling). It also defines “must have” requirements (functionality) to obtain the desired performance and cost. The paper also addresses issues related to the operability, maintainability, and availability of different types of driverless CBTC systems implementations, and the advantages and disadvantages of each solution.

By the way, the article references another written by Mircea Georgescu and Firth Whitwam called “Moving to Full Automatic Operations,” whose citation is “IEEE Hong Kong 2005.” Anyone know where I could get my hands on this? smithsj@gmail.com, as always!

Transpo bill gridlock staves off federal transit regulation

There are two general attitudes among urbanists towards the transportation omnibus bill that Congress has been struggling to pass in recent years (?). Some, like Streetsblogs and a number of political advocacy groups, hope for swift passage because of the bill’s transit spending. Others, like Cap’n Transit, balk at all the highway spending, and cheer on the gridlock.

And here’s one other reason to be on Cap’n Transit’s side: no new bill means no federal regulation of rapid transit.

Right now, the federal government only has the power to regulate safety on rail lines that feed into the national mainline network, and could therefore, at least in theory, run into a freight train. This includes all intercity trains (Amtrak and possibly All Aboard Florida), commuter trains (Metro-North, Caltrain, etc.), and the occasional light rail line using an older right-of-way that’s still connected to the national network (e.g., New Jersey’s River Line). Self-contained “rapid transit” networks – subways, elevated trains, and new light rail and streetcar lines – are beyond the feds’ reach.

To many legislators, the Fort Totten crash on DC’s Red Line in 2009, operated by WMATA, was evidence that federal regulation is needed. (WMATA’s MetroRail is actually one of the most technologically advanced systems in America – or at least it was, until after the crash when they turned the ATO off, which drives the train while the operator opens and closes the doors.) There was a big outcry about it right after the crash and a few times since then, and the debate seems to be coming up again.

But despite the liberal leanings of most transit enthusiasts, you’d be hard pressed to find one who thinks that federal regulation will do WMATA – an admittedly heinous agency that needs to be reined in – any good. The main reason to be suspicious is the incredibly poor job that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has done in overseeing mainline rail safety, which has been in its regulatory portfolio for decades.

In the words of Eric McCaughrin, the FRA is “regulating passenger rail out of existence” with its insistence that trains be bulked up to survive crashes. Instead, he suggests that instead safety regulators should focus on preventing crashes with technology like they do in Europe and Asia – for example by installing automatic train protection and operation systems, which, at least outside of DC, have very good safety records. The FRA’s idea of safety, he contends, drives up costs, power consumption, and track wear-and-tear, while driving down reliability and performance (namely, acceleration and deceleration).

The FRA (or whatever body would be charged with the new regulatory tasks) may not make exactly the same mistakes with subways as they did with mainline trains, but many are fearful that they’ll screw up in some other way, such as not keeping up with future technological advances.

Democrats are likely to follow the president’s lead on the matter, who proposed expanding federal oversight to rapid transit and light rail back in 2009. Most Republicans are against giving more regulatory authority on this matter to the feds, though their opposition seems to be based in ideology. I would love to be proven wrong, but I doubt any of them are actually aware of the FRA’s regulatory misdeeds.

In any case, the issue is tied up with the larger highway bill which is of course mired in its own controversies. So luckily for those leery of federal oversight in this matter, Politico says we probably won’t see the feds regulating rapid transit this year:

But with House and Senate negotiators still far apart on the bill, many are predicting another extension of current policy. That would mean no changes in the transit safety structure.

I do have to take issue with Politico’s headline, though: “Transit safety still lags.” It’s not safety that lags – in fact, rapid transit has an impecable safety record, even taking into account the deaths at the hands of the the fools at WMATA. Rather, it’s federal regulation over safety that’s lagging. The Democrats argue that the two are the same thing, but most Republicans and transit advocates clearly don’t see it that way.

New York transit officials grudgingly consider using existing track more efficiently

Now that Chris Christie killed the ARC project, which would have built another rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan, Transportation Nation is reporting that MTA boss Joe Lhota is asking the different New York area railroads to do what they were supposed to do half a century ago when they were nationalized: cooperate!

What to do in the meantime?

Lhota tossed out three ideas, each aimed at boosting capacity at Penn Station in Manhattan, the hemisphere’s busiest railroad station and a terminal for New Jersey Transit trains.

He said the station’s 21 platforms should all be made to accommodate 10-car trains, which would mean lengthening some of them. He also said that the railroads using the station—Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road—should do a better job of sharing platform and tunnel space.

Each railroad currently controls a third of the platforms, which sometimes leads to one railroad having too many trains and not enough platforms at the same time another railroad has empty platforms. The railroads also vie with each other for access to tunnels during peak periods. Lhota said capacity would be boosted if dispatchers in the station’s control room could send any train to any platform, and through any tunnel, as they saw fit.

Lhota’s third suggestion was the most ambitious. He said the three railroads—plus the MTA’s Metro-North line, which connects Manhattan to Connecticut and several downstate New York counties—should use each other’s tracks. In other words, trains should flow throughout the region in a way that sends them beyond their historic territory. For example, a train from Long Island could arrive in Penn Station and, instead of sitting idly until its scheduled return trip, move on to New Jersey. That way, trains would spend less time tying up platforms, boosting the station’s capacity.

This is very, very basic stuff – stuff that was promised decades ago when the government nationalized commuter rail, and stuff that even the most hardcore libertarians probably would have conceded was one upside of nationalization. And yet, somehow it never happened. Some cities integrated more than others, but even the more successful cities in the US still don’t coordinate schedules and fares between their mainline and rapid transit railways.

Anyway, this’ll be great if it happens in New York, but the bigger problem is that officials are only considering this after their plans to spend billions of dollars on new tunnels were shot down. This runs completely counter to the German transportation planning principle, introduced to me by Alon Levy, of Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton – organization before electronics before concrete. In other words, you should make sure you’re using your existing infrastructure efficiently, either by streamlining operations or paying for relatively inexpensive signal upgrades, before digging (very!) expensive new tunnels.

But it gets worse – not only have they made the mistake of trying to build a new tunnel first, but the Transportation Nation author implies that they might even give up the organizational efficiencies once the tunnel is built! The first hint is in the question – “what to do in the meantime?” – but then later it’s even more blatant:

The Regional Plan Association, which held the conference at which Lhota spoke, and other advocacy groups have expressed support for through-running—at least until Gateway Tunnel gets built.

So once the tunnel is built, we go back to the old, wasteful methods and take away the convenience of a one-seat ride from New Jersey to Brooklyn?! This is like saying, now that we’re in bankruptcy we should probably stop lighting our cigars with hundred dollar bills – at least until we’re out of bankruptcy!

I also found these comments from the MTA spokesman odd: “However, it would require lots of capital investment and changes to existing procedures – and we want to know it can be done without affecting on-time performance.”

It is indeed good that they want to “know it can be done without affecting on-time performance.” But the answer shouldn’t determine whether they go forward with regional rail integration – it should determine whether they fire their management and workers and hire people who can!

FRA interview

I’ll (hopefully) be doing an interview with someone at the Federal Railroad Administration (probably a PR person, but since its via email, hopefully they’ll be able to go ask bureaucrats and engineers the answers to some technical questions) for Streetsblog DC next week, so, if you’ve got any burning questions, let me know and I’ll ask them! You can either leave them in the comments or email them to smithsj@gmail.com. Here’s some background for those who aren’t aware of the controversy over FRA’s safety regulations.

Obama administration sells transit out to protectionists (again)

I’m not sure how I missed this (actually, I have an idea – more on that in a minute), but back in February the Federal Transit Administration issued the following warning about strengthened “Buy America” transit procurement protectionism:

Congress and the Obama Administration asked Americans to provide $787 billion to help avoid an economic catastrophe and restore and modernize America’s infrastructure.  In return, the Federal Government asks recipients of Recovery Act funds to be held accountable to the American public by using these resources to maximize opportunities to put Americans back to work and to support our domestic manufacturing industry.

In order to support this goal, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will not consider any requests for a public interest waiver of FTA’s Buy America regulation for Recovery Act projects.  If issued, such waivers would allow recipients of Recovery Act funds to procure steel, iron, or manufactured products, including rolling stock, that are not produced or manufactured in the United States.  I will not waive Buy America for Recovery Act projects because such action would undermine the very purpose and intent of the Recovery Act—to preserve and create jobs in America.  In addition, FTA will continue to carefully scrutinize requests for waivers based on non-availability to determine whether suitable American-made alternatives exist, and if none do, whether the funds can be used in an alternative manner that fulfills the goals of the Recovery Act.  Similarly, FTA will examine requests for cost-differential waivers to determine whether the cost savings justifies the loss of American jobs, especially in critical manufacturing sectors.  By necessity, FTA will extend existing, standing waivers—for products exempted by the Federal Acquisition Regulation, microprocessors and microcomputers, and small purchases—to Recovery Act-funded procurements, although I encourage recipients to use their best efforts to carry out the intent of Congress and the Obama Administration by carefully stewarding their Recovery Act funds in a manner that supports a healthy and robust domestic manufacturing base.

Buy America is a policy dating back to the Great Depression which requires the government to buy goods made in America when at all possible. For transit, it means that 60% of all materials, from steel to streetcars, must be sourced domestically, and final assembly must take place in the US as well. This final assembly requirement sometimes (often?) means that transit vehicles manufactured abroad are disassembled, shipped to the US, and then reassembled by American workers – the modern-day equivalent of paying people to dig holes and then fill them back up. Normally there are waivers if parts and materials would raise the cost by more than 25% and in the nebulous case that applying Buy American “would be inconsistent with the public interest” (seems to me like it’s always inconsistent with the public interest), but it doesn’t look like the current administration will be granting them any longer.

And while I think it’s a dumb policy in all circumstances, I suppose that the stimulus (“Recovery Act”) was intended as a Keynesian jobs program, so I’m not surprised to see Buy America applied very strictly to those funds. This part, though, was not something that I was expecting:

In addition to the above guidance, please note that this heightened standard is not exclusive to the Recovery Act. FTA has raised the bar for all Buy America waiver requests.  All requests will be scrutinized.  Most requests will result in FTA offering technical assistance to develop a solution that will not necessitate a waiver.  Please be cautious about leading your projects down a path where a Buy America waiver will be needed, as it is unlikely to be granted.

When I last wrote about Buy America provisions hampering transit procurement, I caught some flak from some commenters for calling it Obama’s policy, since it’s been in force for decades – but he owns this one.

Transit advocates are always asking for more subsidies, but they seem remarkably unconcerned about the byzantine tangle of FTA, FRA, and union rules that cause America to have some of the most expensive and inefficient transit in the developed world. Last week I suggested that planners’ reluctance to speak out against cost-increasing union work rules is caused by the ideological affinity between liberal urban planners and organized labor, and I think there’s something similar at play with this recent increase in protectionism. Mass transit boosters waste no opportunity to brag about all the domestic jobs it creates, but all this talk about “green jobs” has its costs.