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CA High-Speed Rail and Positive Train Control in the News

Baruch Feigenbaum
May 18, 2012, 4:30pm

During the past few weeks, High-Speed Rail (HSR) and Positive Train Control (PTC) have both been in the news. 

First, last Thursday Secretary of Transportation LaHood warned California lawmakers to take action on high-speed rail. According to The Sacramento Bee:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned California lawmakers Thursday not to wait until fall for a vote on high-speed rail, urging its approval in a budget vote next month.

"We need to make sure that the commitment is there to obligate the money," LaHood told reporters at the Capitol, where he was meeting with lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown.

The state's commitment, LaHood said, will be demonstrated when lawmakers "put it in the budget and take a vote on it."

Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority want to start construction on a $68 billion rail project by early next year, proposing initially to use $2.6 billion in state rail bond funds and $3.3 billion in federal funds.

Lawmakers remain skeptical, however, and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended against it.

Not only has the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended against it, so has every other independent research group and government watchdog. The Legislative Analyst’s Office has criticized the project for relying on uncertain federal funding. Of course there are a multitude of reasons to dislike HSR in California:

The current California high-speed rail plan is a classic government boondoggle. California should decline its federal grant. If it takes the money it will be required to build the line and operate the service. California does not have the additional $55 billion it needs to build the system. And the first part of the line will travel between Merced and the San Fernando Valley instead of starting in downtown Los Angeles or San Francisco. If the Obama administration is committed to HSR, it should use the California money to begin work on a true high-speed train in the Northeast corridor. That project will not be cheap but at least it makes sense. Of course if the Obama administration understood or cared about transportation in the first place they would have started with the Northeast corridor but that is a discussion for another day.

For more on HSR in Fantasyland see my blog post here and my colleague Adam Summers excellent commentary here.

Meanwhile the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has modified its rule on positive train control; unfortunately the changes are minor in nature. The new rule requires PTC on 63,000 miles of track as opposed to 73,000 miles. The FRA changed its ruling since the 10,000 affected miles of track are not expected to transport hazardous materials in 2015. The new rule is displayed in its entirety here.

First, the positive, railroads will not be required to install PTC on routes that do not transport poisonous materials or are used for transporting passengers. Now, the negative, the change does not go nearly far enough. The FRA should be congratulated for using a little common sense to modify the rule. However, PTC is still required on most tracks. As I mentioned in a commentary here requiring PTC on any track by 2015 is problematic:

While the FRA decision is a step in the right direction, it is only one baby step. Congress needs to delay PTC implementation until the benefits outweigh the costs.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Assistant Director of Transportation Policy

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