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Thread: Railroads vs. rail transit - a useless distinction?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian ChevyChaseDC's avatar
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    Railroads vs. rail transit - a useless distinction?

    An issue I’ve seen brought up over and over again with respect to SEPTA here in Philadelphia is the seemingly common-sense suggestion that the transit agency convert at least some of its regional rail lines into light rail lines – that is, replace the aging, hulking Silverliner cars and their quaint conductors and ticket-takers with sleek, modern Light Rail vehicles that can operate on more frequent headways and use modern fare collection, all the while using less energy due to their slighter bulk.

    Unfortunately, such a switch would violate archaic federal regulations of rail car specifications and labor laws that date back to the `19th Century. The current system, which I suspect most people don’t even know about, is presented below as a couple of seemingly-boring factoids; however understanding the nuance is crucial to advocating for improved rail transportation throughout the country, from Amtrak trains to commuter trains, heavy rail and light rail.

    According to the Federal Government, SEPTA’s Regional Rail is governed under a completely separate regulatory scheme (the rules of the Federal Railroad Administration, to be exact) than are its subways and trolleys, which fall under the purview of the Federal Transit Administration. The FRA has rules that trace their lineage back to the early days of railroading in the 19th Century – this includes physical design requirements and labor laws. The physical design requirements dictate that “railroad” cars, which include SEPTA Regional Rail cars, be far larger and heavier than subway cars or light rail cars, the idea being that they should be able to withstand collisions. As a result, passenger rail cars in the US are usually about 100% heavier than their counterparts in Europe and Asia, where modern train control technology and collision avoidance are the mantra (rather than ‘sheer mass and bulk’ – it’s the same idea that a small efficient car with good steering and brakes is better at avoiding a collision in the first place, even though a hulking SUV may withstand an accident better.) In short, light rail cars, by their very “lightness” would be illegal on “railroad” tracks (again, railroad tracks being those under the jurisdiction of the FRA, even though many “light rail” and “heavy rail” may have the same physical characteristics as “railroad tracks.”)under the current system. “Railroads” under the FRA are part of the “national railroad system,” so theoretically, am Amtrak Train on the Northeast Corridor could be pulled by a diesel locomotive along railroad tracks all the way across the country; subways and light rails, on the other hand are “closed systems” (with the exception of “temporal separation” where light rail operates during the day and freight trains run at night, so they’re not on the same line simultaneously and thus at risk of smashing into one another).

    Even if the design standards were changed to allow light rail vehicles on railroad tracks, as long as the labor rules stay the same, then there’d still be conductors on board the light rail cars to take tickets – “off-vehicle fare collection” with smart cards, swipe cards, or tokens would be out of the question under the current system because the labor rules dictate the existence of a given number of conductors and ticket-takers, depending on the number of cars in the train – more cars, more conductors. There are always at least two workers aboard each Regional Rail train – the engineer/operator, plus the conductor(s), but only a single operator aboard a six-car Market Frankford train hermetically sealed in his cab. Of course, the cost of requiring more than one worker per train makes Regional Rail’s operation quite expensive (along with every other “commuter rail” agency and Amtrak). Clearly, Regional Rail could work with automated off-vehicle fare collection – but it’s pointless as long as they’re required to have conductors on board who would otherwise have little, if anything, to do.

    It’s time to bring passenger rail in the US into the 21st Century from the 19th Century. Should the Federal Government update its railroad labor laws and design requirements? Should subways and trolleys be under separate regulatory schemes than commuter trains? Should smaller, lighter vehicles be able to serve as commuter trains instead of the hulking masses we see today? Are our current regulations a major obstacle to better, cheaper, faster, more abundant rail transportation?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian safege's avatar
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    The Federal DOT does encourage public/private transportation ventures. This may be your best bet in finding that middle ground.

    http://www.dot.gov/affairs/dot0407.htm

    As an ordinary citizen, I am going to a local State government sub committee meeting, bring up public/private ventures in favor of my personal cause. I believe we are on different pages, but are in the same book. Good luck.

    http://skytraincorp.com/Product.htm
    Psychotics are consistently inconsistent. The essence of sanity is to be inconsistently inconsistent.
    -Larry Wall

  3. #3

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    I've seen both LRV accidents (train vs. car) and commuter rail (train running into another train at low speeds & commuter rail hitting vehicles at high speeds)... I'd be concerned about the possibility of light rail vehicles possibly colliding into regular trains. Unless you can ensure that this cannot occur, the difference in standards probably makes sense. There's a big difference between an LRV in a downtown area hitting a car at a fairly low speed and a loaded train slamming into a truck at a regular crosswalk, hence the reasons for desiging the vehicles to different standards.

    Note that not all commuter rail has to be "hulking"... RDCs are one such example of something smaller than a regular train that would be more along the line of what you'd want. Ditto for a lot of European vehicles.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    From local discussions one of the differernces between the heavier commuter rail trains and Light Rail is the amount and size of cars that can be pulled. The light rail (electric) engines have a reduced passanger capacity and are increasingly expensive to run between distant stations.

    As for the requirements of fare takers rather than an automated system, you have a good point that the regulations may need to be changed.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian jresta's avatar
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    There's still significant savings to me made, in terms of labor costs, on the RR.
    NJTransit started moving towards it years ago.

    There's no reason to not have TVMs on the platforms and penalize people for not using them (a la NJTransit). If everyone has a ticket before they board the conductor just walks the aisles checking tickets and the conductors wind up serving the same purpose as conductors on NYC Transit and PATH trains. They control the doors and make sure everyone has boarded/alighted safely.

    If you have a regional rail train with 2 cars or with 8 you still only need one conductor.

    Honestly, i would not feel at all comfortable in a trolley or even on a Riverline car, cruising the stretch of tracks between 30th St. and Bridesburg. Even on the trunk line between Market East and Fern Rock. I'd feel like i was in a Mini going down the truck lanes of the Turnpike.
    Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian the north omaha star's avatar
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    You may know about the proposed Purple Line in the DC area that's supposed to stretch from Bethesda to New Carrollton via Silver Spring. When I was with the state CSX would not budge from its 25' buffer between its freight tracks in Silver Spring and the proposed light rail line. Given that stretch of track between Bethesda and Silver Spring, I can't blame them. I think the MARC/Amtrak crash happened in '93 and the MARC derailment due to warped tracks occurred just a few years ago.
    I am recognizing that the voice inside my head
    is urging me to be myself but never follow someone else
    Because opinions are like voices we all have a different kind". --Q-Tip

  7. #7
    Cyburbian jresta's avatar
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    Thinking about this a bit more - since I hear "let's convert SEPTA's RR system to light rail" at least a few times a year - some of it makes sense but much of it doesn't.

    Light rail would make sense on the R7 and R8 Chestnut Hill lines. These routes are entirely within the city limits. A light rail train could easily leave the rail ROW and jump on to the surface streets in North Philly on the way into Center City. It could be the same with the R8 Fox Chase. The travel times would increase significantly but better headways could make up for that. On the other hand, all that new ridership is going to come from having a new line in North Philly. You might as well try to make it part of a new line through North Philly rather than the other way around.


    On the R5 Paoli/Doylestown, R3 West Trenton/Media (soon to be further), R2 Wilmington/Warminster, R6 Norristown, and R7 Trenton It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The distances are too great and the freight and Amtrak traffic makes the proposition too dangerous. If there was ever a collision between a 100mph Amtrak train and an LRV it's likely to kill everyone on the LRV. Even if Amtrak trains were much lighter than they are now it's still not going to make much of a difference.

    I've been on high-speed trains in France, Spain, and Germany and most of the time it's an exclusive ROW. When it is shared, it's shared with freight or with regional rail. I've never seen light rail operating with freight, commuter, or long-distance traffic. In fact, the only time i've seen light rail anywhere near those bigger trains is when there's a lightrail stop at a train station or when lightrail runs in the same ROW but on its own tracks.

    Also, the busier commuter lines carry up to 1000 commuters per train. How many LRVs are you going to need to get the same job done? How much is it going to cost for a new fleet of LRVs that can go 80mph and still accel and decel quickly while carrying full loads? Are the benefits of such a system likely to outweigh the capital costs? Are the operating costs really going to be that much less?
    Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens.

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