Orlando Light Rail Project

Orlando Light Rail Project

18 September 2008

In the USA, the Bush Administration has been implementing a number of policies that make it increasingly difficult for cities and counties to pursue light rail. (See, for example: With Rail Leading, America's Transit Ridership Soars – But After Years of Underfunding, Agencies Plunge Into Crisis.) One of the more ominous of these developments involves the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) oversight of light rail transit (LRT) lines and other light railways that travel outside the urban core or use existing freight rail track. In a policy initiative that has emerged most recently with respect to Capital Metro's light railway project in Austin, Texas, the FRA is threatening to put such restrictive requirements on these lines (under certain conditions) that local entities will be discouraged from attempting to implement them.

The FRA is now implicitly asserting jurisdiction and full railroad regulations not only over lines that share railway trackage with "heavy" railroad operations, but over virtually all lines that extend beyond city boundaries and which have not already involved Federal Transit Administration (FTA) oversight. The FRA now seems to be insisting that, in most cases, these are not light railways, but must be considered "commuter railroads", and therefore must comform with FRA's full requirements for "heavy" railroad operations.

In recent years, FTA policies have made it increasingly difficult for local areas to receive funding for new rail transit projects, so transit agencies have increasingly sought other sources of funds to finance these projects. Light rail lines that receive funding from the FTA fall under that agency's jurisdiction, so the FRA typically does not contest for oversight in those cases. However, since a number of recent projects have begun to eschew FTA funding, relying instead on local funding resources, the FRA is now starting to assert that they must comply with FRA requirements that FTA-funded projects do not have to follow. To many transit planners and project proponents, it seems unreasonable and inequitable to penalize, in effect, locally-funded projects merely because they did not pursue federal grant funding.

This issue is very important because, by requiring "heavy" facilities, rolling stock, and operating practices, these FRA requirements could make it cost-prohibitive to implement many new rail transit services. Indeed, the numerous interurban trolley systems that used to run in many locations throughout the country might not have been able to operate under these requirements.

The FRA rules currently do not recognize light rail, so rail power cars in any of the rail systems that come under their jurisdiction are considered by FRA to be "locomotives." And, as such, they must meet FRA "locomotive" standards, which mean that either light railway rolling stock cannot be used, or already procured cars must be retrofitted.

Although a transit agency can seek a waiver of the FRA jurisdiction and oversight, in Austin, Capital Metro's request for such a waiver for its Capital MetroRail project has recently been denied, and it appears that, in practice, the FRA will henceforth make it very difficult for similar projects to receive a waiver approval. CapMetro asked the FRA to grant a waiver for operation of "light" (non-compliant) diesel multiple unit (DMU) railcars over its 32-mile light railway demonstration project between the city of Austin (population about 706,000) and the town of Leander (population 18,000) on rail track shared with Austin and Western Railroad shortline freight trains (whose operation would be restricted to late-night hours, temporally separated from transit operations) as well as the Austin Steam Train Association tourist line (whose operation would be moved beyond the portion of route used for transit). In the planning stages for the project, during the late 1990s to 2003, CapMetro worked with FTA and FRA to obtain waivers to operate the system with the freight service, but when CapMetro decided not to seek FTA funding, the cooperative attitude by FRA changed.

FRA would re-classify Capital MetroRail light railway as a heavy "commuter railroad". Here, Capital MetroRail light DMU railcar crosses on special transit-only viaduct over Union Pacific Railroad main line in northern suburbs of Austin.
[Photo: Rickey Green, Capital Metro]

CapMetro insists that the rail line from its inception has been designed to be a "rail fixed guideway system," as defined by FTA policies, and therefore would qualify for treatment as a light railway, with state safety oversight provided by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). FRA, in its response to CapMetro's request for a waiver [FRA letter to CapMetro, 19 Feb. 2008], argued: . . . in comments provided to FRA during the evaluation of this waiver, FTA noted that to be considered a "rail fixed guideway system" within the agency's State Safety Oversight requirements, CMTA [Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority or CapMetro] would have to receive, or formally indicate its intent to receive, funds under 49 U.S.C. § 5307. FTA further noted that CMTA had not indicated an intent to receive such funds; and because the CMTA CRS [commuter railroad system] is being built entirely with local funds, the system could not be considered a "rail fixed guideway system" as defined by FTA regulations. Because the CMTA CRS system would not meet the definition of a "rail fixed guideway system," FTA noted that TxDOT would not have authority to provide system oversight through the agency's State Safety Oversight Program.

Increasingly, the picture is emerging of a prevalent view within the FRA that many states lack the technical knowledge or judgment to oversee rail safety concerns. Although waivers have been issued by FRA for new LRT (or DMU-powered light railway) starts over the past several decades, the current staff apparently think that some of those waivers were ill-advised. According to FRA's newly emergent interpretation of its bailiwick, the agency's jurisdictional claim is asserted not because affected rail lines are shared with freight or because of the type of rolling stock selected, but rather on the basis of other factors – such as whether rail services extend beyond a city's boundaries (especially if these use a separated alignment, which might include a shared or abandoned rail line). Another factor is the pattern of traffic and scheduled operations: A light railway that tends to be predominantly focused on peak-period trips is more likely to be "fingered" by the FRA as "commuter rail" – i.e., the lighter the traffic volume, the more likely is the FRA to designate it a "heavy" railroad type of operation!

"Commuter Operations" in 49 CFR Part 209, Appendix A, spells out FRA's definition of rail passenger transit operations that fall under its jurisdiction:

FRA exercises jurisdiction over all commuter operations. Congress apparently intended that FRA do so when it enacted the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, and made that intention very clear in the 1982 and 1988 amendments to that act. FRA has attempted to follow that mandate consistently. A commuter system's connection to other railroads is not relevant under the rail safety statutes. In fact, FRA considers commuter railroads to be part of the general railroad system regardless of such connections.

FRA is likely to consider an operation to be a commuter railroad if:

• The system serves an urban area, its suburbs, and more distant outlying communities in the greater metropolitan area,
• The system's primary function is moving passengers back and forth between their places of employment in the city and their homes within the greater metropolitan area, and moving passengers from station to station within the immediate urban area is, at most, an incidental function, and
• The vast bulk of the system's trains are operated in the morning and evening peak periods with few trains at other hours.

But such a definition is extremely broad in its sweep. Indeed, many of today's existing light rail lines could be redefined, under FRA parlance, as heavy "commuter railroads" because they link a suburb or ex-urban area with a central city and their primary function is serving commute-type trips, including lines in San Diego, Portland, Sacramento, San Jose, St. Louis, Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Hudson and Bergen Counties of New Jersey).

If the FRA decides that a line is a "commuter railroad" that does not fall under FTA's jurisdiction, the rolling stock, infrastructure and operations must comply with FRA requirements. In Austin, this could mean some major increases in operating requirements and costs plus an overhaul of all of the Stadler GTW light railway DMUs to meet FRA's "heavy" railroad safety and operational standards. The capital cost of converting a light railway into a "commuter railroad" could amount to tens of millions of dollars added on to the project.

The FRA has not provided any evidence to support their claim that light rail lines, either running on separate tracks or time-separated from freight rail, need the additional safety measures that they are requiring. They want to require buff (structural frame impact) strengths (or equivalent physical capabilities) for new track-sharing light rail lines that are based on a collision between a rail passenger car and a freight train. But such collisions could occur only if the rail transit trains and "heavy" railroad trains were operating on the same tracks at the same time – and transit agencies make sure this isn't possible. In several cases, transit agencies have routinely been granted waivers by the FRA to operate light rail-type services under conditions of temporal (time-of-day) separation.

Time-separated light rail and "heavy" freight rail operations share the same tracks at a number of locations in Europe and a few in North America, and there have not been accidents between the two types of trains. Non-electric systems using DMUs are operating in San Diego (Oceanside-Escondido Sprinter) and between Camden and Trenton (New Jersey Transit's RiverLine), where system designers have implemented scheduling procedures and signal-protected safety controls to ensure smooth sharing of the tracks. These procedures are well-proven and widely deployed, and transit industry planning professionals have long assumed that there is no reason why similar measures cannot be implemented in other transit applications.

According to reliable sources, the FRA evidently consider the Capital MetroRail line in Austin to be a test case, and if they are successful in asserting their jurisdiction, they will do so for numerous other rail projects in development throughout the country (one representative estimated about 40 other projects).

This new policy stance by the FRA seems to fit into a consistent pattern of policy measures by the George W. Bush administration that have the net effect of attenuating rail transit development. Indeed, the number of rail New Start projects that have materialized during the Bush administration is down sharply from the number in the previous Clinton administration.

Many public transport professionals and advocates recognize that certain areas of federal transportation policy are in need of serious changes – and the issues raised by the FRA's jurisdictional ambitions are among these.

In particular, federal policy needs to formulate a consistent definition of terms and concepts such as "light railway", "light rail transit", and "commuter railroad". In addition, safety and operational regulations need to be factually based on real-world experience, not arbitrary whims and anxieties of bureaucratic officials. This may well imply the need for substantial revisions of FRA's regulatory structure and policies, particularly in terms of implementing a framework of rational, justifiable, and workable policies for various types of light railways.

Toward this goal, modelling European operational and regulatory practice would be an excellent place to start.

Basic research and working narrative for this article were provided by Susan Pantell, a Research Associate with the Light Rail Now Project.
Updated 2008/09/18


FRA would re-classify Capital MetroRail light railway as a heavy "commuter railroad". Here, Capital MetroRail light DMU railcar crosses on special transit-only viaduct over Union Pacific Railroad main line in northern suburbs of Austin.
[Photo: Rickey Green, Capital Metro]

click photos to enlarge

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