Light Rail Project
Orlando Light Rail Project
18 September 2008
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.
issue is very important because, by requiring "heavy" facilities,
rolling stock, and operating practices, these FRA requirements could make
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]
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
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!
Operations" in 49 CFR Part 209, Appendix A, spells out FRA's definition
of rail passenger transit operations that fall under its jurisdiction:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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]