2101 Constitution Avenue Washington, D.C. 20418

Office Location
2001 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C.

Telephone: (202) 334-2934
Telex: 248664 NASWUR
Telefax: (202) 334-2003

May 9, 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 fourth meeting on March 13-14, 1997, in Washington, D.C. There were two major topics on the meeting agenda: (1) discussion of FRA's philosophy and process for setting safety regulations and the implications for deployment of high-speed rail (HSR) technology, and (2) a review of the HSR R&D program status and budget requests for FY98. Enclosed is a committee roster that indicates members in attendance at the meeting.*

During the course of this meeting, the committee met in open sessions with FRA staff, including representatives of the Office of Safety, the Office of R&D, and the Office of Budget, who gave presentations in their respective areas and answered questions from the committee. The committee then met in executive session to deliberate on what it had heard 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.

This letter report consists of two major sections, the first dealing with safety regulations and the second with the committee's review of the HSR R&D program status and budget. More detailed comments on these topics are provided in Annexes A and B, respectively. The report concludes with a brief discussion of the committee's future activities.



At the committee's meetings in July and October 1996, representatives of the R&D program's constituent groups were invited to meet with the committee to determine how well their needs are being met. (The most active group of constituents comprises those states working to deploy HSR technology; other constituent groups key to that deployment include Amtrak, suppliers of HSR equipment and related systems, freight railroads, commuter rail systems, and researchers.) In summarizing these discussions in its December 1996 letter report, the committee pointed out that several issues related to safety regulations for HSR constitute a barrier to its implementation:

...the constituents raised a number of issues related to regulations, both in terms of the protracted administrative process and in terms of the general approach to, or philosophy of, safety regulation. They agreed that the current regulatory process is too slow and unresponsive to adapt to changes in design and creates uncertainty about acceptable designs. This in turn led to the conclusion that safety regulations based on design standards tend to stifle innovation. They see the need for a change in regulatory philosophy to risk-based performance standards and a safety certification process to measure the effectiveness of new control systems, train equipment, and other new technologies. (Risk-based performance standards specify performance results with a predetermined, acceptable margin of failure risk.) The committee agrees that a change in regulatory philosophy is needed and will include further discussion of this issue in its next letter report.

The above paragraph continues to reflect accurately the committee's views on the safety rulemaking process and its implications for the deployment of HSR technology. At the March meeting, the committee heard presentations on FRA's efforts to issue new regulations through the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC), and appreciated the opportunity for extensive discussion with Grady Cothen, FRA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Safety Standards and Program Development.

The committee's understanding is that FRA staff agree with the committee's concept of performance-based regulation. Moreover, FRA is moving toward performance-oriented regulation because of the Government Performance and Results Act and by Executive Order1. Indeed, there are some performance-oriented features of regulations currently being developed, including elements of passenger equipment safety standards and of track safety standards. On the other hand, the staff pointed out some of the practical difficulties of setting performance goals and the limited resources the agency has to undertake this mission. The RSAC process of collaborative rulemaking has helped reduce the traditional animosity among the parties, particularly freight railroads and labor unions, by bringing them and other stakeholders to the table. In addition, more fact-based decisions are being made in the regulatory process. A number of major rulemakings have been developed since RSAC was chartered in March 1996. Yet a significant backlog remains.

Clearly, there are practical difficulties involved in converting to performance-based regulations, and the committee recognizes that it is not an easy process. However, it is also clear to the committee that the current regulatory process is a serious impediment to the implementation of HSR and must be more aggressively addressed.


R1. The committee recommends that FRA staff develop a timetable for the evolution to a performance-oriented regulatory approach. One aspect of such an approach would be requiring a "system safety plan." To accommodate administrative and institutional factors, this evolution could follow two paths--one for dedicated operations and one for mixed passenger and freight operations. Annex A elaborates on this concept.

R2. The committee also recommends that, as part of a plan for the evolution to a performance-oriented regulatory process, the Office of R&D, in conjunction with the Office of Safety, conduct research on management of the safety regulatory process in order to establish a framework for the transition. (In its December 30, 1996, letter report, the committee listed "safety regulatory processes" as an appropriate subject for future research.) The committee is prepared to continue a dialogue with FRA staff on the scoping of research that could support this effort.

R3. The committee recommends that FRA's approach target performance goals at a higher level of system concept design, rather than at the component level, to provide more flexibility and opportunities for innovation. For example, instead of setting separate specifications for wheel design and for rail, setting a performance standard for wheel/rail interaction would move the process to a higher level since their performance as a system is more important to risk management. Lower-level specifications for components of a particular system would be derived from the higher-level system risk analysis rather than being arbitrarily set in specific regulations.

R4. Risk assessment capability is the key to establishing performance-oriented regulations, and FRA has begun to explore risk assessment methodologies. The committee recommends that those efforts continue.



The committee reviewed the progress made to date in each program area of the Next Generation HSR Technology Program (NGHSR). The committee also reviewed the preliminary FY98 program budget with two factors in mind: continuity with prior years and new future directions. Annex B provides detailed results of the committee's program review.

In general, the committee continues to endorse the appropriateness of the major program areas being pursued by FRA: positive train control technologies, nonelectric locomotives, and grade crossings. In addition, track and structures has recently been added as a new program area, in large part because of a $5 million congressional earmark in this area in the FY97 program. However, the committee has reached some additional conclusions regarding the program, which serve as the basis for the recommendations offered below.


Response to Funding Constraints and Need for Improved Program Integration. The amount of funding available overall is inadequate to meet program goals in all areas. Railroad transportation is capital intensive, and demonstration projects are expensive. FRA's funding for the NGHSR has been reduced by the Administration to about $20 million ($5 million less than in the previous two years). The committee recognizes that substantially more funds for each program area are not likely in the current budget environment. The committee also notes that funding limitations, as well as congressional earmarks, have resulted in a program that can be characterized as fragmented and diffuse.

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 cancelled, 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 cancelled 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.

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.

Management Approach. In its December 1996 letter report, the committee expressed its concerns about FRA's "...choice of using states as the managing agents for the R&D..." and about the "...FRA staff...not [being] sufficiently close to the project details...." The committee questioned "...whether some contracting mechanism (other than cooperative R&D agreements with the states) or changes in the agreement structure could provide FRA with more direct project control."

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

Improved Linkage Within the R&D Program. The focus of the committee's review was on the NGHSR, but the committee also heard presentations on the other areas of FRA's R&D program. The committee believes it would be desirable to achieve improved linkage within the R&D program.

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.


One member, Dr. William J. Harris, Jr., has resigned from the committee because of a conflict of interest arising from his recent employment by the U.S. Department of Transportation. A new member has been added, Louis S. Thompson, of The World Bank, to provide the committee with knowledge of international rail activities.

The committee has tentatively scheduled its next meeting for the fall to address its specific charge to "...assess whether specific projects in FRA's program are likely to yield useful research results, and the prospect of state and/or private deployment..." and to prepare a letter report on its related findings.

Once again, on behalf of the committee, I want to thank 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



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 to deal 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 FRA-related activities.

First, FRA funds a research program from its high-speed ground transportation (HSGT) R&D program that TRB administers on FRA's behalf, as described below. The total funding TRB manages is $500,000 in 1996, which represents 1.5 percent of the HSGT R&D expenditures. The funds are used to encourage researchers to develop potential innovations in train control and risk reduction at grade crossings. TRB has established policies and procedures to ensure that this committee can evaluate the HSGT R&D program independent 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 high-speed rail systems. Funding is provided by FRA at the level of about $500,000 annually. The program is 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 practice. An IDEA award is a pass-through of funds to provide one-step, short-term support.

Secondly, FRA has a standing arrangement to fund research projects at MIT 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, one-year task, however, is not directly related to the FRA HSGT R&D program, and is funded separately by FRA's Office of Safety.

1 Executive order No. 12866, Regulatory Planning and Review, 9/30/93; 58 FR 51735.

The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering
to serve government and other organizations


FRA has established a process for evaluating individual HSGT proposals on a case-by-case basis, with the intention of issuing a "rule of particular applicability" for a new system that may be deployed. For example, FRA is now undertaking such an evaluation of the Florida Overland Express HSR System (FOX) proposal. FRA is requiring FOX to develop a "system safety plan." Such a plan contains information on how the operator will manage safety, as well as on the hazard identification and risk analysis used to show that the proposed system will comply with performance targets. Establishing performance-oriented regulations or a system safety plan requirement for separate (or dedicated) HSR operations is institutionally less complicated than doing so for mixed passenger and freight operations, as discussed below.

Dedicated Operations. The evaluation of a system safety plan concept, as is being done for FOX now, should be made a more generic process for application to future projects. If performance objectives were set at the system level, applicants could meet them through a combination of subsystems of their choice. FRA would have to identify a group of methodologies that would be used to determine the safety of a particular system proposal. In the long run, this would save FRA the cost of developing more specific regulations by placing the burden of proof on the applicant that the proposed system could meet the performance objectives. There are a variety of analytical techniques or methodologies that could be used for this purpose. In evaluating a system proposal, FRA would need to be able to determine that (1) an accepted methodology had been used, and (2) it had been used appropriately and accurately. Because the applicant's input to the analysis would be measurable, reaching agreement on an analytical technique or methodology would create a more objective, less political process for ensuring that performance targets can be met. This process would also create an opportunity for the acceptance of new technology that could demonstrate compliance with the targets.

Mixed Operations. There is no difference in principle in applying the system safety plan approach to operations where HSR must mix with freight on existing lines, but the committee recognizes that the process may be slower and more difficult for administrative and institutional reasons. Because of the need for a transition from the existing rgulatory process and the involvement of more parties, it might be possible to develop performance goals for existing operations as an alternative, parallel process and allow applicants to choose to either (1) meet the existing specifications or (2) provide a system safety plan for proposed innovations. In the latter case, if the applicant could demonstrate that its proposal would comply with performance targets, FRA could approve the exception. Over time, this parallel approach could evolve toward performance-oriented regulation, such as a system safety plan requirement. Beginning a parallel process for mixed operations could also reduce FRA's costs for developing new regulations and would help reduce the backlog of needed regulations. With continuing technological change and without significantly increased resources, it is unlikely that FRA can ever catch up by issuing specific regulations.


The committee reviewed the FY98 budget proposals for the Next Generation HSR Technology Program (NGHSR), along with the current progress made in each program area. This annex presents the results of that review. It is important to recognize at the outset of this review that the recent railroad mergers have affected and delayed some of the projects involving individual states and individual freight railroads.


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.

FRA has three major initiatives under way in this area: the Chicago-St. Louis corridor high-speed PTC project, the Detroit-Chicago demonstration of communications-based cab signaling, and the Pacific Northwest Corridor project. Progress in this program area has been slowed by railroad mergers.

Chicago-St. Louis Corridor. Union Pacific (UP) has acquired control of this corridor. Although UP has committed to permitting a high-speed test on this corridor, UP management is not committed to making the associated upgrades that Southern Pacific (SP) management was willing to make. The required private investment is in the tens of millions of dollars to permit PTC operations and testing. Negotiations are under way between the Illinois Department of Transportation and UP about how to proceed, but at this point it is not clear what kind of high-speed PTC test can or will proceed.

Detroit-Chicago Demonstration. The Detroit-Chicago corridor project is making better progress on a much simpler design, though this design falls short of being PTC. The system being installed is the equivalent of cab signals and permits speed to be increased from 79 to 110 mph. It is substantially cheaper than conventional cab signal equipment and would also permit the cab to call ahead to activate grade-crossing warning systems. The corridor in question, which is an Amtrak-owned segment of the Detroit-Chicago line, is lightly used for freight service at this time. If the system were used for mixed-traffic operations, freight locomotives would need to be equipped with the appropriate equipment. Because this system is an overlay on the existing block signal system, it does not offer the ability to increase route capacity. Other applications of the system will be limited to routes where capacity is not a primary issue.

Pacific Northwest Corridor. The Pacific Northwest Corridor project is a test of positive train separation technology, sponsored by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and UP, with support from FRA. However, UP management has not made a long-term commitment to maintain this system. A $5 million earmark in the FY96 program was intended to provide for migration of the positive train separation technology to PTC. Also in the Northwest, a model for analyzing the safety and capacity consequences of mixed operations is being developed, but UP has recently reminded the FRA that this model will not actually be tested by running higher-speed passenger operations on the corridor.

FY98 Proposal. The FY98 funding proposal includes $1.5 million to assess the interoperability of the PTC systems being proposed with support from HSGT funds. In addition, $3.5 million would be spent to demonstrate flexible block operations over the entire distance of a developing high-speed corridor.


This program area has had four major initiatives: development of a lightweight, high-speed diesel (which has been canceled), upgrade of existing turboliner trains (turbine diesels) in service on the New York City to Albany corridor, development of a flywheel, and upgrade of the test track at the Transportation Technology Center (TTC) to allow testing of high-speed equipment.

Lightweight, High-Speed Diesel. A lightweight, high-speed diesel has not been developed because New York's prime contractor, Republic Locomotive, was unable to follow through on the original concept. The project was idle for about a year before the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) was able to cancel the arrangement and FRA staff could begin reprogramming the funds. The need for development of a high-speed diesel locomotive remains, however. Even though existing equipment is capable of speeds up to 110 mph, in practical use the maximum speed is limited to about 95-100 mph. At present, the market for higher-speed diesel equipment is not sufficient to attract private capital to bear the development costs alone.

Upgrade of Turboliner Trains. Upgrading of turboliner trains is designed to permit New York to place in regular service trainsets operating up to 110 mph. FRA has provided $6 million to NYSDOT and plans to add $4 million, to be matched by $10 million from NYSDOT. In addition, NYSDOT is seeking financing of up to $40 million to upgrade the remainder of its fleet of seven turboliner trains. This program, which is largely the result of a congressional earmark, will be of direct benefit to New York; it will improve speeds on an existing corridor that already has nearly a million annual passenger trips. The first trainset upgraded is already in successful service. The demonstration, however, will not benefit other states because turboliner trains are no longer available elsewhere in the nation, nor are they being manufactured.

Flywheel Development. The flywheel project, if successful, would permit more rapid acceleration of nonelectric locomotives, overcoming one of their major shortcomings. This project appears to the committee to be a classic public-sector R&D effort. Because it is attempting to integrate separate, experimental technologies on a larger scale than has yet been accomplished, there are considerable risks and uncertainties. The committee views this as a longer-term effort (perhaps as long as 10 years); it may, therefore, be an inappropriate project in the context of the program's shorter-term goals. (See recommendation R5 in the body of this letter report.)

Upgrade of TTC Test Track. The $9.5 million upgrade of the TTC test track is under way and on schedule to allow testing of Amtrak's new 150 mph locomotives for service in the Northeast Corridor.

FY98 Proposal. In its FY98 proposal, FRA is allocating $8 million " integrate the most promising [locomotive] technologies of the Next Generation Program into a prototype suitable for in-service demonstration on a daily basis..." and " begin locomotive-mounted testing and demonstration of the flywheel-turbine Advanced Locomotive Propulsion System (ALPS)."


One of the major issues facing incremental HSR is overcoming the safety hazards at grade crossings. Conventional grade-crossing signals are not designed to respond to high-speed train operations. In addition, there is a potential increase in risks to motor vehicles that attempt to circumvent existing gates and/or warning signals; high-speed operations also pose an increased risk of train derailments in collisions with heavy-duty trucks.

Approaches to Risk Reduction. FRA has been funding the exploration of a variety of approaches to managing the safety risks of higher-speed operations. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) Section 1010 program has provided funds to close some grade crossings in selected corridors. The planned "arrester net" demonstration project in Illinois has been delayed, but in any case does not appear to offer a practical, affordable solution. FRA has also been experimenting with a number of relatively small-scale, low-tech risk-reduction technologies for grade crossings. The largest single effort in this program area is the "Sealed Corridor" in North Carolina, which will apply a number of these technologies along a single 70-mile track between Greensboro and Raleigh. A $2 million award to North Carolina is imminent from FY97 funds.

FY98 Proposal. The FY98 $3.5 million proposal would complete the North Carolina "Sealed Corridor" and provide funding " explore opportunities to link signals, crossings, ATCS [advanced train control systems] and IVHS [intelligent vehicle highway systems]...." It would also continue to solicit ideas and new technologies to address the grade-crossing problem.


This is largely a new program area. Most of the current effort will be for the pending $5.65 million cooperative agreement with Oregon to upgrade the Portland-Eugene corridor. The $1.55 million proposed for FY98 will be for efforts to seek out and demonstrate advanced, economical technologies for resolving corridor capacity constraints posed by mixing heavier freight trains with higher-speed passenger trains. These two types of operations make different demands on track and structures; the challenge is to provide a smooth enough ride for passengers while providing sufficient strength to accommodate heavy-axle loads for freight trains.

Enclosure 1
April 21, 1997

Committee for An Assessment of Federal High-Speed
Ground Transportation Research and Development

Dates of Attendance - March 1997 Meeting


Dr. Joseph M. Sussman
JR East Professor and Professor
of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
3/13 & 14


Mr. Roy A. Allen
Vice President
Research and Test Department
Association of American Railroads
3/13 & 14

Mr. John G. Bell
Program Director,
High Speed Trainsets
National Railroad Passenger Corp.

Dr. Alan J. Bing
Senior Consultant
Arthur D. Little, Inc
3/13 & 14

Mr. Alan G. Dustin
3/13 & 14

Dr. Raymond H. Ellis
National Director
Transportation Consulting Practice
KPMG Peat Marwick

Mr. Nazih K. Haddad
Administrator, Systems Development
High Speed Rail Program
Florida DOT
3/13 & 14

Mr. Louis S. Thompson
Railways Adviser
The World Bank
3/13 & 14

Mr. Warren D. Weber
Rail Program Manager, MS-74
California Department of Transportation
3/13 & 14

Mr. William Weinstein
Principal Member of the Technical Staff
The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc.
3/13 & 14

Liaison Representative

Mr. Steven R. Ditmeyer
Office of Research & Development
Federal Railroad Administration
3/13 & 14

Return to High Speed Ground Transportation Policy Study Summary
TRB Policy Studies | TRB Home Page | NRC Home Page