18 July 2015

News Roundup, July 2015

Cost of Dual Height Boarding: with its industry review of the EMU draft RFP, Caltrain sought feedback from vehicle manufacturers regarding the cost and feasibility of delivering vehicles with dual boarding height capability.  According to the latest EMU procurement update, the feedback received indicates that vehicle cost would increase by just 3 to 5 percent.  This small premium (roughly $20 million) all but ensures that the HSR project will be able to pay for this important compatibility feature.

New Rules for Electrification: the California Public Utilities Commission has released General Order 176, the Rules for Overhead 25 kV Railroad Electrification Systems for a High-Speed Rail System.  The new GO, effective as of 26 March 2015, will also serve as the regulatory framework for Caltrain's electrification project, despite the peninsula corridor not qualifying as "high-speed rail" as narrowly defined in the document.  Three major issues remain to be hammered out with regulators and freight railroads: (1) grade crossing warning systems, (2) vertical clearances, and (3) freight personnel safety and training for operating freight trains in electrified territory.  These three issues are minor and unlikely to require a new rule-making process.  The release of GO 176 is timely for Caltrain's electrification project.

Cap and Trade Maneuvering: at least two lines of attack are being pursued by opponents of Caltrain electrification and the high-speed rail project.  First, there is or will be legal action that seeks to deny the use of Proposition 1A HSR bond funding to pay for Caltrain electrification, based on the (quite defensible) argument that electrification isn't high-speed rail and won't meet the legal restrictions of the bond measure. Prop 1A high-speed rail funding accounts for the lion's share of the funding package for electrification, a contribution of $600 million.  The underlying calculus is that denying this funding would kill the electrification project. Second, there is or will be legal action that seeks to deny the use of Cap and Trade funding to pay for high-speed rail, based on the (quite defensible) argument that the greenhouse gas reductions from HSR will only occur far in the future, well beyond the time frame required by CnT legislation.  Both of these legal challenges can be neutralized in one fell swoop, by substituting HSR CnT funds for the HSR Prop 1A funds. According to Caltrain's EIR, electrification will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80,000 metric tons per year initially, increasing to 190,000 metric tons by 2040, largely by cutting automobile traffic.  It doesn't get much more short-term than that, and CnT funds come with far fewer strings attached than Prop 1A funds.  Look for the funding swap to occur this fall, when the nine-party MOU is revised to reflect the growing electrification budget.

HSR Business Plan Machinations: due to the lack of funding to build the extremely expensive mountain crossings, there are indications that the 2016 business plan for HSR will call for service to begin in the SF and LA areas several years before the Central Valley is linked to anything.  This should be of some concern to Caltrain because it would put HSR in direct competition with Caltrain for affluent tech commuters, no matter what they say.  If Caltrain is elbowed out of the lucrative express market, the loss of revenue will be entirely HSR's gain.  While this Bay Area mini-HSR might show an operating profit (as required by law), it could only do so with a hidden subsidy, provided in the form of extremely scarce and valuable rush-hour track capacity.  Competition is great, but the market mechanisms for sharing the peninsula rail corridor "fairly" (whatever "fair" means to each stakeholder) would need to be carefully developed.  Then again, this silly idea might just wither on the vine, since the letters 'H' and 'S' would be absent from HSR.