Industry innovation + regulatory adaptability = endless possibilities

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Saturday, May 28, 2016

Many who advocate bringing greater balance to the US transportation system, myself included, argue that planning and funding mechanisms would deliver projects that provide greater choice to travelers and improved interconnectivity between travel modes if the long-standing silos between the modes were broken down. These silos exist at all levels of government and dictate on what basis public funding is distributed, how safety and performance standards are overseen, what types of work rules and labor protections are in place, etc.

Perhaps the best place to start is by breaking down silos within the rail mode, particularly the rather rigid distinction between “passenger rail” (including intercity and commuter rail, regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration) and “rail transit” (including subways/metros, light rail and streetcars, regulated by the Federal Transit Administration).  While many of the different regulations that apply to passenger rail and transit serve legitimate purposes, the two Administrations should be able to adapt their rules to accommodate the latest technology and allow transit agencies and their contractors and suppliers, as well as intercity passenger train operators, to experiment with service options that move between “heavy” and “light” rail environments.

1912 advertisement for the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Electric Railroad, showing transition from streetcar to interurban. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Such blurring of lines between different types of passenger rail services was more common earlier in the last century, when trains that acted as streetcars or metros in city centers transitioned to dedicated rights of way to connect suburbs and adjacent cities in a heavy rail manner. Many electric interurban lines did this, such as the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee (which connected from its own right of way onto the Chicago El’s Loop) and the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis (which acted as a streetcar within Washington and Baltimore then expressed on dedicated tracks to Annapolis, MD). And it is more common today internationally.

This type of interoperability would be most useful in cities where direct service to heavily populated areas that are not close to the main intercity or commuter rail line, but lie along subway or light rail lines, would generate significant additional patronage. Service could be operated with Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU)-type equipment that would run in intercity or regional service on the main line, then switch onto the transit line and either serve selected transit stops, or become simply another frequency of transit service.

NJT RiverLINE DMU train in Camden, NJ. Photo by NeiTech / Flickr.com (cropped from original).
The most obvious obstacle is the FRA’s size, weight and crashworthiness standards for heavy rail vehicles that share track with traditional passenger and freight trains. These standards should become less rigid as technology (including Positive Train Control) evolves to the point where crash avoidance begins to supplant crashworthiness, but that’s a topic for another column. But DMU services like New Jersey Transit’s RiverLINE and Austin’s Capital MetroRail, which currently operate under permits that allow them to run at different times from freight trains on the same line and then transition into street-running light rail services, demonstrate the possibilities for this approach. Another exciting new service to watch is northern California’s SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Transit), set to begin revenue service next year, which will use DMUs in more of an intercity configuration, including an on-board snack and wine bar. 

One future place where a blended intercity-transit service may some day be feasible is my original home state of North Carolina. As Charlotte expands its light rail system and the Triangle area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) builds one, and as capacity allows for more frequent intercity service between the two metros on the state-owned (Norfolk Southern dispatched and maintained) Piedmont corridor, the NCDOT could use DMUs that start on a Charlotte light rail line, switch over to the Piedmont corridor to run intercity, then wind up on the Triangle light rail line. This would enable many more city pairs to have one-seat rides and truly bind this burgeoning urban corridor together. 

With cooperation between regulators, suppliers, operators and funders, and a willingness to adopt flexible rules and standards, the possibilities for versatile passenger rail services that provide mobility where it’s needed — regardless of what type of rail infrastructure is in place — are truly endless.

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