Rail Agency: Boost Safety on Curves

9 Jun 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Amtrak should outsource for safety and savings: Column.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Railroad Administration has recommended commuter railroads look at where they have sharp track curves and adjust their automatic train control safety systems to prevent trains from going too fast there, like an Amtrak train did before it derailed in Philadelphia last month. It was a case of grim timing: just a day after the horrific rail tragedy in Philadelphia, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut $251 million from the Amtrak budget.If traffic is smooth on Interstate 95, driving is the quickest way to get from Richmond to Washington – even faster than taking the train, which can take up to 2 hours and 45 minutes.

The move is expected to come in the form of a safety advisory issued as soon as Tuesday, and would mark among the regulator’s first industrywide actions following the May 12 derailment, which killed eight people and injured more than 200 others. Virginia transportation officials say they want to cut that train ride to 90 minutes, make passenger train travel more reliable and attractive to travelers in the corridor, and increase capacity. The new safety advisory would apply to all of the country’s 28 commuter railroads, including the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad and NJ Transit. The advisory will urge the railroads to identify curves and bridges in their networks where speed limits drop by more than 20 miles an hour, the official said.

Construction is half completed on adding a third track in the area used by Virginia Railway Express, which provides commuter rail service from Fredericksburg to Washington. The Richmond-Washington project is part of a nationwide push for high-speed rail and a federal plan to bring higher speed trains to the Southeast corridor, all the way to Florida.

Any improvements in the commonwealth’s rail system also would support Amtrak’s vision to transform the Northeast Corridor into a high-speed system by 2040. The emergency order targeting Amtrak is similar to an order aimed at Metro-North following a derailment by one of its commuter trains in the Bronx in December 2013. Federal investigators determined the engineer suffered from sleep apnea, leading the train to jump the track as it moved through a tight curve well above the speed limit. The solution is for Amtrak to outsource its operations and maintenance as several commuter rail agencies have successfully done, achieving improved service reliability and lowered costs without compromising safety.

An effort to add high-speed rail between Norfolk and Richmond is years away.) Amtrak’s plan calls for the replacement of its Acela Express fleet, which rarely reaches top speeds of 150 mph, with new high-speed trains that would cruise at top speeds of 220 mph. After the Metro-North crash, the railroad changed its signals to prevent speeding at the Bronx curve, four other turns and at five movable bridges, said a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the railroad’s parent agency. Amtrak’s plan for the busy Northeast Corridor – which carries about 12 million passengers annually – would make a trip from New York to Washington possible in just 94 minutes, instead of the current three hours.

The regulator has argued its hands are tied with its emergency orders, saying they must be narrowly tailored to be enforceable and not used as a broad brush. The Obama administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program has made $10.1 billion available to projects across the U.S., so far investing in more than 150 projects to advance high-speed plans.

But with no permanent solution in sight to replenish the nation’s dwindling transportation fund, significant progress in high-speed rail appears unlikely anytime soon. The nation’s railroads face a deadline at the end of this year to install an advanced crash-prevention system known as positive train control, or PTC. When I was an Acting Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration in 2006, the trend toward public rail commuter agencies outsourcing operations began to greatly increase. Since then, there have been more pointed examples showing the private sector can conduct operations more efficiently than the giant Amtrak bureaucracy: Amtrak is one of the few transportation modes using government-like management and services for operations.

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