Thursday, March 26, 2009

My idea for Heavy Rail in the East End Part 7

OK, I swear that this is really the last one. There are some important parts and issues relating to the actual operation of the service that need to be addressed.


As with all railroads, this plan would require the lines to be dispatched. Basically, a dispatcher is someone who prioritizes, and coordinates the movement of trains and the use of track by maintenance crews. The entire Greensburg Line is dispatched by Norfolk Southern, and a small portion of the New Ken to Hazelwood Line (From the Strip District to Hazelwood) is dispatched by CSX. The remaining portion of the New Ken to Hazelwood Line is owned by Carload Express (AVR) and is very lightly used and does not currently require the use of a dispatcher. Given the current situation there are several options for dispatching.

1. Use dispatching services of host railroads: This option would not require the Port Authority (or whatever regulatory body would govern the commuter service) to hire dispatchers or maintain the infrastructure that goes along with it. However, in this case, the devil's in the details. Both CSX and NS use their own separate rule book to govern their operations. That means that any time a train would move from the tracks of one railroad to the other, they would be required to change the rules that governed their movement on the fly. This can be done, but is cumbersome. Additionally, this means that our system would be subject to multiple rules (as I said, each Railroad has their own set of rules) Another concern is who would take over the responsibility of dispatching the line to New Kensington. I doubt that a railroad would take on that responsibility for free. As it stands now, NS dispatches most of the territory, and the additional territory could be assigned to them.

2. Create a separate dispatching system: For my two cents this is the better option. As I said, the system would have to purchase the infrastructure to dispatch and pay people to do it, however, from an operations perspective this is much more efficient. This way, there would be no transition "between rulebooks", and one unified rulebook of choice could be chosen (i.e. a train going from New Ken to Hazelwood would not have to transition to an entirely set of operating rules part way through the trip). Additionally, for the case of the current NS owned parts, freight trains that would operate on the line during off-peak hours could be dispatched by Port Authority dispatchers, and operate under their (Port Authority's) rules. Additionally, the sparse freight traffic on the AVR portions of the system, again could be dispatched by Port Authority dispatchers.


Signals are used (not unlike traffic lights) to govern movement of trains (when to go, when to stop, when to slow down and prepare to stop). They are, an EXTREMELY expensive infrastructure cost, both in initial investment, and in maintenance. Many lightly trafficked lines do not use signaling, however, for an operation such as the one I have been proposing, signaling of the route is a must.

The good news is, part of the job is done. All of the NS controlled track is already signaled, and a small portion of the CSX (from Hazelwood to the Strip) is signaled. However, the entire line to New Kensington is not. Signaling would have to be installed along this track. Luckily for us, we don't have to look any further than the Pittsburgh Technology Center. Union Switch and Signal (a division of Ansaldo) is located there and their bread and butter is building signaling systems for railroads. What better than to get a more or less local company to provide the signaling for the project?


This is where things get a little sketchy. Vehicles would be the biggest question mark for the project. Thus far, the plan has called for the use of DMU's (Diesel Multiple Units), basically single, self propelled rail vehicles, that can operate singly in tandem. These are a less expensive option to a regular "train" consisting of a locomotive and cars.

The problem with DMU's was that they have, for the most part, been unable to meet FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) crash worthiness. As a result, most current operations, like New Jersey's Riverline, and San Diego's Sprinter, have extreme restrictions and cannot operate anywhere close to freight trains, because the vehicles they use are considered to be "Light Rail" vehicles (Think The "T").

A company called Colorado Railcar Company built a demonstration DMU that toured the U.S. in 2004 (including a stop in Oakmont). This was the first DMU to be FRA compliant, meaning it could operate inter-mixed with freight train traffic. That was the good news. The bad news came in the end of 2008 when the economy and delays on orders caused Colorado Railcar to go out of business, and with it went the primary vehicle option for heavy rail commuter service in the East End. Like I said, there are options, the Port Authority could purchase rail vehicles that are considered to be "Light Rail". Siemens Transportation and Bombardier both make such vehicles, but that would preclude any freight trains from operating anywhere near these things, and that would make NS in particular, a lot less likely to go along with this plan.

In my mind, the best option is to wait and see. There are a number of fledgling commuter systems in the U.S. that had pinned their hopes on Colorado Railcar, meaning the demand is there. If the demand is there, someone will be there, sooner or later to answer that demand, whether it be a start up company or one of the international players. Another potential answer is after market modifications to current designs. One of the most promising is a heavy rail vehicle currently in use in Australia, and built by Bombardier, called the VLocity. Being the Mechanical Eng, I mean History Major that I am, I was unable to find out how this vehicle stands up to FRA crash regulations. Of the types of vehicles I was searching, however, it is certainly the heaviest and most robust.

This post is certainly looking ahead, we have not moved beyond the study to find out if we want to study this option study. In a way that could be good, because there are many obstacles, and many operational questions that need answered. I just hope this project isn't too young to miss the pro-transit/anti-car wave that is slowly gripping the nation.

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