Monday, November 22, 2010

AVR Commuter Rail Operations Part 1

Ok,  I’m FINALLY getting to this.  I know there’s a lot going on, and a lot of it is negative.  I’d like to focus on something that is moving forward, at least for the time being.  I was going to do this in one post, but it got a little O.O.C. so it’ll be broken up into three. 


Before I get into the whole light rail/freight separation thing, we can get the “easy stuff” out of the way.  Dispatching of this operation would be vary very little from dispatching a “heavy rail” operation.  A dispatcher would oversee operation, line signals and manage the movement and protection of the trains.  The bigger question is who would run it.  I can’t say for sure if AVR has dispatching factored into its annual operating cost in its study of this service.  I do know that they will be on the hook for it.  I would be very surprised if CSX would take on this responsibility, and there’s no way the NS would get involved.  Additionally, as The Trib so wonderfully put it, they wouldn’t want to burden the Port Authority with any further responsibility, so the AVR looks to be on the hook for all operations including dispatching.  A cost issue, which must be taken into account is night-time operations.  If a signal system is installed (it would have to be) it can’t just be shut off at night.  It takes written FRA approval to shut down a signaling system.  That means that the lone night time train would require a third shift dispatcher.  Hardly an effective use of money. 

The next question is what operating rules they would use.  NORAC would make the most obvious choice, and is used by NJT on their RiverLine.  Most other rulebooks are railroad specific, but NORAC provides rules which are used by multiple railroads, especially in the Northeast/Mid Atlantic region. 

Time Seperations

I’ve talked a lot about light rail intermixed with freight traffic and I’m not a big fan of these types of operations, except in cases where the freight operating window is very narrow (think a few hours) because of the FRA requirement of a “temporal separation” between freight traffic and light-rail passenger operations.  If you’re going to run a commuter service, then in my mind it should be heavy rail, but that’s another discussion for another post. 

If this operation is envisioned to be a purely commuter style operation, then the separation called for by the FRA isn’t a big problem.  Passenger trains would operate mostly into the city during the day and out of the city at night.  Operations would end probably somewhere around 8 or 9 PM, allowing the AVR to serve its customers, and would then begin early in the morning. 

The problem with this is, however, it limits the operation’s effectiveness for TOD and also in getting people out of their cars on nights and weekends.  What’s the attraction to living close to transit that doesn’t operate when you need it (outside of work)?

If this operation is to be, as some have painted it, as an intra-city link to move people from downtown to the Strip/Lawrenceville area, then this could be a challenge (not to mention I question this operation’s value in that capacity).  A subsequent separation or several separations would have to occur on a daily basis for this to work.  For example, a certain portion of the line (say above Oakmont) could be made available for freight operation after a given time (10 PM for example), while the southern portion could remain off-limits to freight until a later time (1 AM, for example).  One problem with this, however, is that the northern portion of the line is isolated.  AVR trains must enter at one of two spots, the first around 33rd St. which uses their own rails, or via NS’s Brilliant Branch, which would require further trackage rights and an extended back-up move. 

To accomplish this, another window would have to be established, earlier, say after rush hour but before the “nightlife” kicks in.  Passenger operations would have to be banned entirely during this period and all passenger equipment clear of the line and properly secured.  The AVR could then enter the line and travel north towards New Kensington.  Once the train cleared a certain point (say a controlled point in or around Oakmont) AND a certain time was reached, passenger operations could then resume on the southern portion of the line until later that evening, when passenger operations would be suspended for the evening and the AVR could service customers south of Oakmont.  See the list below for a (hopefully) better explanation.

6AM to 7 PM-Passenger only operation.  No freight operation allowed*
7 PM to 8 PM-Freight only operation, no passenger operation allowed**
8PM to 1 AM-North of Oakmont:  Freight only operation, no passenger operation allowed. 
8PM to 1 AM-South of Oakmont:  Passenger only operation, no passenger operation allowed.
1 AM to 6 AM Freight only, no passenger operations   

Clearly it’s doable but complicated.  I’ve heard of an FRA waiver that could be applied for to allow simultaneous operation, but I don’t know how practical this is considering NJT’s RiverLine was supposed to be operated in this manner but could is still operated with the time separation after 6+ years of operation. 

I did a little more digging and found out that the RiverLine is operating under waivers.  However, it's not as straightforward as I thought.  Apparently a waiver is required just to let freight trains use an interlocking or controlled point that has a physical connection to the RiverLine (ridiculous).  Additionally, it appears that a waiver is required for a freight train to even operate on a separate but parallel track to an active light rail track (also ridiculous).  New Jersey Transit and Conrail were approved for these waivers and are operating under them, but these waivers do NOT allow for freight traffic to operate on the same track at the same time as passenger traffic.

These waivers would certainly have an effect on AVR's operation.  The freight would have to enter at a controlled point, remotely controlled by a dispatcher.

View AVR Freight Connection in a larger map

 The AVR also has a track that continues over the Allegheny River and interchanges with the Buffalo and Pittsburgh at Bakerstown, PA.  Because this line (the former B&O Railroad P&W sub) sees freight traffic on an as needed basis and because there is a physical connection between this line and AVR's proposed service, a waiver would be required.

The whole issue of temporal separation could be avoided by dedicating one track to freight and one to passenger.  The line was at one time double track so it is possible, but again, some sort of waiver would be required.  

*This means that no heavy freight cars, engines or trains can move on or occupy any main track, and must be secured against movement

**This means that no passenger trains can move on or occupy any main track, and must be secured against movement.

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