(photo by wwarby)
ORIGINAL POST, 25 May 2014: Feathers are really starting to fly in the Public Utilities Commission proceeding to establish a regulatory framework for 25 kV railroad electrification in California, under CPUC docket number R1303009. Electric utilities and freight railroads are putting up a big fight against the California High-Speed Rail Authority that threatens to leave Caltrain hanging out to dry.
With the impending electrification of the peninsula corridor clearly in mind, the freight railroads asserted in January comments that "it remains unclear if the proposed rules will be sufficient for high-speed train operation in shared rights-of-way” and that “[i]f the CHSRA does not amend its petition to clearly state the intended scope of the rulemaking, the Commission should order further workshops to ensure that the proposed rules are carefully vetted out for application in shared rights-of-way."
Freight railroads are concerned about a number of compatibility issues, including electromagnetic interference with their signaling systems and vertical clearance for their freight cars. Electrification could impair vertical clearances especially under bridges.
The CHSRA's response, filed in late March, was crystal clear:
The purpose of these rules is to establish uniform safety requirements governing the design, construction, operation and maintenance of 25 kV ac (alternating current) Railroad Electrification Overhead Contact Systems (OCS) constructed in the State of California in right-of-ways dedicated solely to passenger use with no public highway-rail grade crossings and in which freight operations do not occur.The peninsula corridor, of course, meets none of these criteria. It is not dedicated solely to passenger use. It has numerous highway-rail grade crossings. Freight operations occur daily. The freight railroads are understandably worried about this issue of scope, given that the legislature has allocated more than a half-billion dollars of HSR funding to electrifying the peninsula corridor; Caltrain plans to complete the electrification project in just five years.
[The freight railroads] know that the proposed General Order is not ambiguous and that it will not apply to track where freight operations occur. Their continuing refusal to be satisfied on this point reveals a desire to delay and obstruct this proceeding.
Where does that leave Caltrain?
- No regulatory framework exists for Caltrain's electrification project
- CHSRA is explicitly not planning to establish such a framework
- The freight railroads are vigorously opposed to the idea
- Time is running out
The Short Line Option
It has been suggested that the rulemaking process would be less contentious if a smaller "short-line" freight operator were to buy the trackage rights UPRR enjoys on the peninsula corridor. Presumably, such a short-line operator would be less adversarial in the negotiation of a mutually agreeable regulatory framework and technical solution for electrification.
This scenario unfortunately fails to take into consideration the precedent-setting nature of placing 25 kV electrification over any track where freight operations occur, regardless of ownership. The big freight railroads, UPRR and BNSF, will be no less interested in such a proceeding at the CPUC than if their own tracks were being electrified.
The Nuclear Option
Section 8.3.c of the trackage rights agreement with UPRR specifically allows for the wholesale abandonment of freight service on the peninsula, should Caltrain "demonstrate a reasonably certain need to commence construction on all or substantially all of the length of the Joint Facilities of a transportation system that is a significant change in the method of delivery of Commuter Service which would be incompatible with Freight Service." While 25 kV electrification over freight trains doesn't seem to be such a big deal on the East Coast or the rest of the world, the freight railroads' arguments in the latest CPUC proceedings could be construed as a belief that 25 kV electrification is fundamentally incompatible with freight operations in California. Do we really want to go there?
Whatever option is pursued, there is little doubt that the freight railroads will have a big hand in the outcome, and that lawyers and judges will be involved. The freight railroads have clearly demonstrated that they have:
- Intimate familiarity with the intricacies of the CPUC rulemaking process
- Ready access to a deep bench of experts who can testify on any technical subject
- An army of well-paid lawyers