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December 23, 1997 

The Honorable Jolene M. Molitoris
Federal Railroad Administration
400 Seventh Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590

Dear Administrator Molitoris:

The Transportation Research Board (TRB) Committee for an Assessment of Federal High-Speed Ground Transportation Research and Development, established at the request of the House and Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittees and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), held its fifth meeting on October 27, 1997, in Washington, D.C. The committee’s specific task at this meeting was to address three questions: (1) whether the specific projects in FRA's High-Speed Rail (HSR) R&D program are likely to yield good research results, (2) whether the results will be used, and (3) what the prospects are for state and/or private deployment. Enclosed is a committee roster that indicates members in attendance at the meeting.*

During the course of this meeting, the committee met in open session with FRA staff who presented a review of the HSR R&D program status, FY98 budget details, and the direction for FY99 plans, as well as an overview of the draft Office of R&D Five-Year Strategic Plan, and answered questions from the committee. The committee then heard a series of presentations from constituents of the R&D program and technology specialists who were invited to share their perspectives on the three questions noted above. Also enclosed is a list of these participants. The committee then met in executive session to deliberate on the information presented and to develop this report.

The committee expresses its appreciation to the FRA staff, both for participating in this meeting and for providing relevant materials for review prior to the meeting. Without their extensive and helpful interaction, the committee would be unable to fulfill its charge.

You have characterized previous letter reports of this committee as being "frank", and this report is no exception. The committee reiterates its support for HSR as a critical research initiative. Given the importance of HSR passenger service in many corridors to fulfill public policy objectives, a case could be made for significantly greater funding in this area. It is the committee’s intention to provide constructive support for a more coherent research effort for which additional funding could be well justified.

This letter report consists of three sections that address in turn the questions outlined above. Each section presents the committee’s findings and recommendations with regard to the three major program elements being pursued by FRA: positive train control (PTC), high-speed nonelectric locomotives, and grade crossings.


As stated in previous letter reports, the committee continues to endorse the appropriateness of FRA’s major program areas¾ PTC, high-speed nonelectric locomotives, and grade crossings. At the October 27 meeting, FRA staff indicated that PTC is their highest priority, followed by development of a high-speed nonelectric locomotive that will be capable of speeds up to 150 mph, be adaptable to many corridors, and serve as a counterpart to Amtrak’s high-speed electric trainset.

Before addressing whether projects in each of these three areas are likely to yield good research results, clarification of terminology used in discussing the programs is warranted. The committee has been tasked with assessing research results. The committee is aware that the Swift Act, which authorizes the Next Generation High-Speed Rail (NGHSR) program, calls for "...improvement, adaptation, and integration of proven technologies for commercial application in high-speed rail service in the United States". FRA staff have interpreted the Swift Act language as requiring a program that demonstrates technology. On the other hand, the FRA HSR program is also authorized by Section 1036(a) of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 " promote the construction and commercialization of high-speed ground transportation systems by (A) conducting economic and technological research...." The Senate report on FY98 appropriations states that the NGHSR "...funds HSGT [high-speed ground transportation] research, development, and technology demonstration programs, as well as planning and analysis required to evaluate technology proposals under the program".

Overall Findings

The committee finds that the NGHSR Technology (formerly Development) Program is not strictly an R&D program, but a collection of technology demonstration projects, many of which are site-specific in their applications. In prior letter reports, the committee has expressed its concerns about the state-focused nature of the program. With project management and cost sharing provided by one state, each demonstration project is designed to maximize the benefits to that state, but not necessarily to produce results that are applicable to other states or corridors. The committee has also noted in prior letter reports that the program is subject to significant congressional earmarks. As a result of these and other factors, the program suffers from a lack of strategic focus; indeed, it is highly fragmented. An effective research program would be aimed at producing more generic technology than appears to be emerging from this program¾ technology that could operate anywhere in the United States without special adaptation. The committee recognizes that state cost sharing enables FRA to stretch federal funding; nonetheless, it is clear that a fragmented rather than a national program is resulting.

The committee also remains concerned about the fragmentation of program management. In July, FRA staff stated to the committee: "Elements of the Next Generation High-Speed Rail program will be transferred to the Office of Passenger and Freight Services from the Office of Research and Development. The latter office will continue to manage research and development of high-speed rail technology components and provide technical support for and review of the Next Generation program." This move was intended to "...put greater emphasis on implementation of high-speed rail systems sponsored by State governments in cooperation with Amtrak". This reorganization, however, has actually dispersed the management of FRA R&D activities rather than improving the linkage between the NGHSR and R&D programs.

Overall Recommendations

The committee reaffirms the recommendations made in its May 9, 1997, letter report:

R5. To accomplish any of the program goals at the available funding levels, it is necessary to focus on a smaller number of objectives and projects, and the committee therefore recommends that the focus of the program shift accordingly. Specifically:

R6. The state-focused program being pursued by FRA is not producing generic technologies for the wider-scale adoption of incremental HSR. In each program area, major projects either have been canceled, have limited application to one state, or have been interrupted by freight railroad mergers that have put project implementation in doubt (see Annex B). The committee recommends that the limited available funds be focused on projects with the greatest potential for widespread applicability. To this end, the committee believes the appropriate investment would be in train control technology.

For the FY98 program, funds allocated to locomotive development and funds available from reprogramming the canceled lightweight diesel project could be reallocated to this area. Locomotive technology for the speed range of 79 to 110 mph already exists to satisfy the needs of many states for incremental high-speed operation. However, positive train control technology is not available, and this is a critical constraint. Development of appropriate technology must meet two conditions: (1) it must be affordable for freight rail operations, and (2) it must be compatible with existing equipment.

R8. The committee recommends that FRA strengthen its program management capabilities to speed up and better control the individual projects.

R9. The committee recommends that the R&D program and the NGHSR demonstration program be more tightly and explicitly linked together. NGHSR could also be more closely linked with the Commercial Feasibility Study, which points out the importance of advances in train control technologies to permit the mixing of high-speed passenger with freight operations.

1.1 Positive Train Control

The committee made the following statement in Annex B to its May 9 letter report:

High-speed positive train control (PTC) technology is critical for incremental high-speed operations for two reasons. First, such technology is required by regulation for operations in excess of 79 mph. Second, in mixed operations, PTC is needed to manage capacity. Passenger trains operating at higher speeds require considerable "forward track space," which takes away capacity for freight trains. High-speed PTC technology would allow safe operations with shorter spacings between trains operating at different speeds. Without the ability to manage capacity more efficiently, the freight railroads may be less than willing to share limited capacity.

Findings. Projects related to train control are fragmented both geographically (in three separate corridors) and technologically. The committee presented a detailed assessment of the three projects in Annex B to its May 9 letter report. Updates on the status of these projects are as follows:

In addition, funds earmarked for Oregon are being employed to demonstrate the use of digital radios to improve communications for the PTS system and accommodate newly assigned radio channels. Although the committee does not question the need for this radio system, it is commercially available equipment that does not need to be demonstrated.

The committee continues to believe that the elements of the various train control projects are not coming together in an integrated way. FRA stated that a "cross-cutting" assessment of the train control projects is being undertaken, but what this review will produce needs to be more clearly defined.

Recommendations. The committee reaffirms two of its recommendations in its May 9 letter report with regard to PTC¾ recommendations R6 (quoted above) and R7:

R7. The committee believes FRA's most effective role in the development of positive train control technology would be in research that would foster the development of reliable safety-critical software by ensuring that the algorithms used in advanced train control systems are sound. These algorithms should address the problem of train separation by treating it as a problem in resource allocation, where the track is the resource being allocated to the users (e.g., freight and passenger trains, maintenance crews). Such algorithms are universal and have generic application. This effort might lead to actual development of software and/or to the development of methods for validating the safety-critical performance of the software.

1.2 High-Speed Nonelectric Locomotives

FRA’s main efforts in this area are the development of high-speed nonelectric technology and the research, testing, and development of a locomotive flywheel.

Findings. Annex B of the May 9 letter report provides detailed comments on the projects related to nonelectric locomotives. Since the time of that report, FRA has decided to separate work on the fossil-fuel engine and related locomotive platform from that on the flywheel. The committee is pleased with this decision and believes adherence to the project description contained in the Transportation Appropriations Conference Report will result in a locomotive adaptable to a number of different corridors, and compatible for use with a variety of propulsion systems that could incorporate the flywheel technology if and when it is produced. The committee’s findings and recommendations related to upgrading of the Turboliners and to flywheel development remain unchanged since the May 9 report.

Recommendation. The committee encourages FRA to select one qualified locomotive manufacturer to carry out development of a high-speed nonelectric locomotive on a cost-sharing basis, recognizing that this effort will require a multiyear financial commitment from both partners.

1.3 Grade Crossings

FRA’s incremental strategy for HSR requires more effective management of risk at grade crossings.

Findings. North Carolina’s Sealed Corridor project is an excellent effort that is yielding the most cost-effective results of all the grade-crossing projects. The committee is encouraged that FRA is no longer pursuing development of some of the more "exotic" devices for reducing grade-crossing hazards.

Recommendation. As noted above, the committee reaffirms its endorsement of the sealed corridor approach as expressed in recommendation R5 from the May 9 letter report.


The committee interprets this question narrowly to involve assessing whether results of individual projects will be used at their respective specific locations. The broader applicability of these technologies in other places is addressed in the discussion of question 3 below. The extent to which research results will be used depends on the completion of individual projects, and on the long-term commitment of the states and/or railroads involved to continued use of the technologies developed or demonstrated.

2.1 Positive Train Control

Findings. As noted earlier, according to the freight railroads leading the Pacific Northwest Corridor project, the PTS software being developed under that project will be tested but not put into use in that corridor. Moreover, the PTC system being installed on the Detroit-Chicago route covers only a quarter of the route. The Chicago-St. Louis Corridor project is not yet sufficiently defined to assess the technology’s potential usefulness, and the long-term commitment of the freight railroad to maintaining the PTC system or even utilizing the line for freight is not ensured.

Recommendation. FRA’s cross-cutting assessment of the various train control projects should focus on coordination of what is being learned in each that could be used in the development of PTC, e.g., braking algorithms.

2.2 High-Speed Nonelectric Locomotives

Findings. New York State has the first upgraded Turboliner in successful revenue service, and the prospects for the next upgrade are promising. The benefits of this project are limited to New York, however, because Turboliners are no longer being manufactured. Further, this equipment will not meet FRA’s program goal of 125-150 mph service and will not meet the proposed Tier II requirements (or even Tier I).1

FRA staff stated that both Bombardier and GM’s Electro-Motive Division have expressed willingness to share the costs of the development of high-speed nonelectric locomotives that will meet the Tier II requirements. This is an important, positive step, along with FRA’s decision to separate the development of these locomotives from the flywheel project, as discussed earlier.

The committee continues to view the development of a flywheel for locomotive application as a longer-term research effort. Moreover, the committee notes that flywheel technologies are being developed by other groups, some funded entirely by the private sector. In this context, the committee questions why scarce FRA funding is being directed to the flywheel project. Several states developing incremental HSR view the improved acceleration capability of a flywheel as a means for improving trip times. However, high-speed routes will have a limited number of station stops and speed changes, so the development of a high-speed nonelectric propulsion system would improve trip times more significantly than would increased acceleration.

Recommendation. Other groups are conducting research on flywheel development for application in other modes of transportation. FRA should monitor these efforts for future application to locomotives, but should not continue to fund separate flywheel research.

2.3 Grade Crossings

Findings. North Carolina is already reaping benefits from the Sealed Corridor project. The risk-reduction technologies being demonstrated under this project are likely to be used in the corridor to improve safety even without an increase in the speed of rail passenger operations.

Recommendation. The committee reiterates here its endorsement of the sealed corridor approach.


The committee interprets deployment to mean widespread application of technology beyond the demonstration location. Deployment thus clearly depends on the generic nature of the technology for application to other corridors. In general, the committee concludes that the program’s piecemeal approach is unlikely to advance the deployment of HSR. As discussed in the committee’s May 9 letter report, there are also fundamental issues related to safety regulations that must be addressed in order to encourage innovation and the deployment of new technology.

3.1 Positive Train Control

Findings. A substantial majority of the committee agrees with FRA that development of PTC is the number one priority for the successful development of incremental high-speed passenger service on freight railroads. However, all the potential safety and productivity benefits of PTC will not be realized for high-speed passenger service or other freight and passenger rail services unless development of components is undertaken as a system. Many of the major corridors where incremental HSR is planned are experiencing capacity constraints. PTC might provide increased operational capacity in addition to safety improvements and help avoid massive infrastructure investments. The Illinois PTC project is not yet fully defined, so its applicability elsewhere cannot be assessed.

Recommendations. Since the committee’s last letter report was submitted, several events have occurred in the rail industry that have drawn attention to safety issues. Scrutiny of accidents and the results of safety compliance reviews may well lead to calls for increased industry regulation. FRA should encourage the railroad industry¾ freight and passenger¾ to consider development of PTC as a system. FRA is in a unique position to convene a summit of the industry’s corporate leaders to forge a partnership for the potential implementation of PTC technology. A majority of the committee believes a nationwide PTC system can produce benefits for the deployment of high-speed passenger rail, as well as safety and productivity benefits for all freight and passenger railroad operations.

3.2 High-Speed Nonelectric Locomotives

Findings. The committee believes that if the development of high-speed nonelectric locomotives is successful, there is strong likelihood that these locomotives will be deployed in a number of corridors, as a component of systems designed to fulfill long-term plans for HSR.

Recommendation. The committee recommends prompt action to proceed with development and demonstration of the high-speed nonelectric locomotive with high-speed and commuter rail agencies.

3.3 Grade Crossings

Findings. Clearly, the low-cost, low-tech solutions being demonstrated in the North Carolina Sealed Corridor project are transferable to other corridors, particularly where incremental HSR is being developed on freight rail lines. These solutions offer an incremental approach while crossing closings are being negotiated and funding is being made available for the grade separations needed for true HSR.

One aspect of the Detroit-Chicago PTC project has found applicability elsewhere: the grade-crossing activation system has been transferred to the Northeast Corridor. This system could be applicable in other corridors where variable (including higher) train speeds must be accommodated.

Recommendation. The committee reiterates here its endorsement of the sealed corridor approach.


Once again, on behalf of the committee, I want to thank James T. McQueen, Associate Administrator for Railroad Development, Steven Ditmeyer, Director of the Office of R&D, and the R&D staff for their continued cooperation in this important effort.

Sincerely yours,

Joseph M. Sussman
Chair, Committee for an Assessment of Federal High-Speed Ground Transportation Research and Development



cc: The Honorable Ted Stevens

The Honorable Robert C. Byrd

The Honorable Richard S. Shelby

The Honorable Frank R. Lautenberg

The Honorable Bob Livingston

The Honorable David R. Obey

The Honorable Frank R. Wolf

The Honorable Martin Sabo


* As is standard policy for NRC committees, the members of this committee met in executive session at the outset of each meeting to discuss any potential or perceived conflicts of interest that might have arisen for any of them. The committee has agreed to abide by TRB policies for dealing with conflicts of interest that may arise in the bidding for or winning of FRA contracts by firms with which members are associated. In the interest of full disclosure, we note the following two FRA-related activities.

First, FRA funds a research program from its NGHSR program that TRB administers on FRA's behalf, as described below. TRB has established policies and procedures to ensure that this committee can evaluate the HSR R&D program independently of any impact its evaluation might have on TRB or the NRC. The Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis (IDEA) Program for intelligent transportation systems (ITS) includes a component that supports projects on ITS applications for the development and deployment of advanced rail system technologies, including HSR systems. The funds are used to encourage researchers to develop potential innovations in train control and risk reduction at grade crossings. Funding is provided by FRA at a level of about $500,000 annually. An additional $500,000 is being provided from FY 1997 funds for an HSR IDEA program that will solicit innovations for non-ITS technologies related to HSR safety. The total funding provided to TRB in FY 1997 is thus $1 million, which represents about 3.5 percent of the HSR R&D expenditures. The IDEA programs are administered by the Special Programs Division of TRB. IDEA investigations explore the feasibility of innovative and unproven new concepts or evaluate novel applications of advanced technologies from defense or industry to ITS or HSR practice. An IDEA award is a pass-through of funds to provide one-step, short-term support.

Second, the U.S. Department of Transportation has a standing arrangement to fund research projects at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through a Basic Ordering Agreement (BOA). In a project expected through this BOA, my colleagues and I will develop an analytic procedure for risk assessment, which could have application in future FRA safety regulatory analyses. This $100,000, 1-year task, however, is not directly related to the FRA HSGT R&D program, and is funded separately by FRA's Office of Safety.

1FRA's Passenger Equipment Safety Standards, Proposed Rule, 49 CFR Part 216 et al., September 23, 1997, proposes different requirements for two groups of railroad passenger equipment -- Tier I for equipment operated at speeds not exceeding 125 mph and Tier II for speeds exceeding 125 mph but below 150 mph.

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