Op-Ed: 7 Strategies to Expedite Intercity Passenger Rail Expansion

Last week the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) made the much-anticipated announcement of the recipients of the of the Corridor Identification and Development program (CIDP) awards. FRA selected 69 corridors across the country and each will get up to $500,000 toward the planning phase of a new or improved passenger rail service. This advances the federal government’s goal of expanding passenger rail across the United States, funded by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). At the same time, the FRA announced $8.1 billion in capital project funding through the Federal State Partnership-National (FSP-N) program. Those projects that are part of the CIDP have future priority for the remaining $3.06 billion in FSP-N funds.

Making sure that funding is invested wisely is critical to the long-term success of expanding passenger rail in the United States. Thorough planning is the foundation to this, and the steps developed in CIDP indicate that the FRA wants to ensure projects have detailed, fully-developed plans before they are funded. This article highlights areas where the CIDP process – and the current US approach to rail planning – should be improved to maximize use of project sponsor resources and ensure the results of planning and corridor preparation deliver world-class passenger rail service.

The winning project sponsors have the next few months to put together a scope and budget for a Service Development Plan (SDP). To help this process, the FRA developed a draft statement of work framework for agency use, listing eight tasks as show in the image below. FRA will need to approve the final SDP before an agency can move on to request FSP-N funds for engineering and construction.

The FRA’s SDP framework takes a traditional approach to developing rail service, with many important aspects that should be part of the planning process. Other aspects, however, could be improved as part of a modern and more efficient process. The FRA provides significant flexibility in the SDP process, allowing project sponsors to meet their own goals and contexts. For example, the tasks listed are not necessarily sequential, and do not need to be approached in that way.

Here are seven things project sponsors can do to make the most out of their SDPs while still meeting the requirements of FRA’s CIDP process. These are based on DB’s experience as an owner and operator of the largest integrated transport network in Europe and a trusted advisor to railroads throughout the United States.

  1. Bring governance to the beginning of the process

Governance is the foundational aspect of any public or private endeavor, defining the structure, roles, and responsibilities in which decisions are made and the accountability to implement them. It involves the project sponsor institution itself, its board, its legal authorities, its staffing, its decision-making process, and the relationships with other institutions, services, land uses, and governments that are physically or legally adjoined. Planning a new or expanded rail corridor requires decisions and accountability. It needs to be clear to stakeholders from the outset who is making decisions and how those decisions will be implemented.

Task 7 of the SDP framework is a governance review, calling for an analysis of “potential governance and program administration options for the long-term management structure for design, construction, maintenance, and operations…” Elsewhere, governance-related items are mentioned, such as the stakeholder engagement plans in Task 2. In other cases, the governance is not directly addressed, such as in Task 4.7 where FTA requires capital cost estimation but does not mention how the project will be delivered and who will be responsible for what aspects of it. This risks creating confusion in the study process and open-ended recommendations without clear authority for implementation.

The governance task needs to come at the very beginning, defining the roles and responsibilities for the project sponsor, host railroads, and other stakeholders that are part of the process. It needs to create clear accountability and work within the political and legal framework for the region. This is vital to creating effective purpose and need statements as well as making it clear who is leading what aspects of the project. In some cases, like the project sponsor entity, the role needs to be clearly assigned. In other cases, the governance needs to be a strategy, such as selecting a construction contractor or a railroad service operator. This task need not be rigid: it can allow for changes in responsibilities during and after the SDP process, but it needs to be structured at the beginning.

  1. Express specific, quantifiable project goals around service and operations, not infrastructure

Each project will begin with clearly defining its goals. For many US infrastructure projects, this involves writing a “purpose and needs” statement as required for the federal planning and environmental process. This is an opportunity for the project sponsor to also start defining its service goals. The end product of rail investment is a timetable of passenger service, so expressing service goals in this format helps clearly articulate what the project sponsor really wants. Because a timetable enables everyone transparently see how the service can be useful to people along the corridor, it also helps better understand how the service affects goals like reaching new markets, allowing for low-carbon transportation, and addressing environmental justice.

Project sponsors need to avoid expressing their goals in terms of infrastructure. For example, double tracking a rail corridor or increasing speeds on a section to 110 miles per hour is not a service goal. A map with a bunch of abstract lines is not a service goal. High speeds might be a means to go faster between two points but should not be a goal unto itself. The timetable is a better tool for determining how fast and for how long a train needs to travel to deliver a trip time goal (not a top speed). Similarly, connecting two cities might be of value, but limited transportation use if there are only one or two trains per day. Service oriented goals, on the other hand, are customer-focused and can be easily expressed in a timetable.

The goal setting exercise can also be the basis for the benefit-cost analysis and the business case. By setting the goals in terms of service, it is easier to calculate the potential benefits and understand the different types of riders the service will attract. It will also help shape the service outcomes, driving efficiencies and keeping costs low.

  1. Explore alternatives using an iterative process

When someone decides to remodel their kitchen, they intuitively follow an iterative process for picking the right layout, appliances, and finishes within their general expected budget. They explore different layouts, see how it fits with different cabinet and appliance designs, shift things around, and perhaps change their minds several times before landing on something that they both like and can afford. Each round of refinement builds off previous work and feedback. The level of detail increases as decisions are made. The final design will certainly not be one of they reviewed on the first day, but will be something that strikes a balance between goals, budget, and constructability.

When it comes to rail planning, we apply a totally different approach. At the onset, a project sponsor will create a broad set of potential final alternatives, those alternatives become fixed before analysis even begins, and then they will be screened and scored until one of those alternatives is selected as the preferred. The current SDP follows this screening process, and it limits agencies in designing their service and capital program by being overly rigid and inflexible as the analysis provides new information.

It is better to combine the SDP Tasks 3 (alternatives analysis) and Task 4 (transportation planning) into a single, iterative approach that works directly with the project sponsor goals to refine concepts into something that meets them, is technically feasible, and within budget. This can also be done within the context of environmental analysis, allowing for unforeseen challenges to help alter inputs, service designs, and infrastructure.

An iterative planning process, which is common in places like Germany, helps prioritize service, acquire the right equipment, reduce unnecessary infrastructure, and create a program of investments that can phase in service improvements as funding is made available. By combining several task elements, this process often moves faster than the traditional alternatives analysis and transportation planning process, because it allows for only the level of detail necessary to make key decisions and refine as the decisions get more detailed.

  1. Use only the level of analysis needed for the task (and be wary of ‘false precision’)

When creating a plan, it’s important to have analyses that help provide information to make key decisions. However, too much analysis does not necessarily yield better information or allow for better decisions. Just because an output is reported to the third or fourth decimal place doesn’t necessarily make it any more accurate or helpful to the decision-making process. Too often, planning relies on overly detailed models that simply are not worth the time and effort. The SDP requests two examples of unnecessary analysis: ridership modeling (Task 4.3) and railroad simulation (Task 4.2).

For example, ridership modeling typically involves creating a four-step logit choice model that, based on a host of survey data and other assumptions, can output a forecast of how many riders might take the service in the future given assumptions for trip time, cost, frequency, and a number of other factors. These exercises are expensive, time consuming, and opaque attempts to forecast the future decades in advance. Instead, planners should use a simpler process and can quickly and transparently provide similar ridership estimates at a strategic-level, appropriate to the level of detail required for decision making.

Similarly, dynamic rail simulation is an expensive and highly detailed software solution to a problem that does not need to be solved in initial rail planning efforts. Using other planning tools (static models) that do not require the same level of detail as rail simulation can yield the needed results for the planning exercises far faster and for a fraction of the cost. Rail simulation might come into play later when more detailed operational analysis is needed, but it can be avoided to achieve the objectives of the SDP.

  1. Understand the capacity of the host railroad(s)

In the United States, a new or expanded rail service almost always means running passenger trains over tracks owned by freight railroads. By adding new services, it takes away capacity from freight operations, and these host railroads typically require infrastructure investments to ensure their operations are minimally affected. This is both expensive and it often means that the freight railroads get to dictate the size and scope of the necessary investments.

Task 4.1 of the SDP requires a list of the operational requirements and physical conditions of the railroad on which the future service will run. This is a data collection exercise to understand its physical characteristics. Project sponsors can take this task a small step further to use the data to understand the capacity of the railroad and how passenger rail improvements affect that capacity.

It benefits both the public sector and the host railroads to start the infrastructure discussion with a clear, defined understanding of the capacity of the existing railroad and the capacity requirements of the proposed service. Developing the needs for freight movements, passenger movements, maintenance-of-way time, and other requirements, the analysis can better pinpoint constraints and work proactively with the host railroads to address those challenges.

  1. Approach the new or improved rail line as part of an integrated operation, not a standalone line

Good public transportation is integrated with other local transit services in physical location, operational coordination, and quality customer experience. A successful system should support travel from anywhere to anywhere in the network, not just to specific locations such as major-city central business districts. Network planning, rather than isolated corridor or operator lead planning, brings together service, operations, and infrastructure planning to focus improvements to deliver a coherent rail network.

The SDP includes a station area and access analysis in Task 4.5. This task mentions physical connectivity to other transit modes, walking, and cycling, which is important. (It also calls for provisions for “parking sufficient for the corridor,” which is less so.) This component of the SDP needs to go beyond the physical connections and specific plans about how the operations and customer information like ticketing would be integrated to cut barriers and boost ridership. Network integration becomes possible when service is the central focus of the planning process, which requires a shift away from operator- or infrastructure- focused planning.

  1. Develop a plan to make each station a center of economic activity

For a new rail corridor to reach its potential, stations along the route need to anchor centers of economic activity. Stations must be seamlessly sited and integrated into the local city fabric and ensure that surrounding land-use focuses on leveraging public and private investments to support growth. This symbiotic relationship stands to both further enhance the appeal of the network and the stations. When offices, businesses, and residences are within close walking distance to the station, it becomes a destination itself, drawing all types of trips all day.

The SDP framework mentions “land use” only once: as impacts to commercial and residential potential rather than something the plan attempts to shape. Project sponsors should take this opportunity to be more direct with the plans for land use near the stations. Are stations located as close as possible to existing dense areas, and if no how can they be moved? Do new stations allow for development that will drive ridership, and if now how can that be changed? These need not be detailed transit-oriented development plans, but rather proactive plan how the existing land use and future zoning permissions can help create centers of economic activity along the entire corridor. Project sponsors can identify underused parking structures and other nearby land and proactively work with localities to enable transit-oriented development near their stations.

Conclusions

None of these changes and upgrades to the SDP process are trade secrets. In fact, it is how railroads like Deutsche Bahn create high density corridors with mixed freight and passenger traffic. With a few tweaks, the SDP can be both more time efficient, less expensive, and more effective all at the same time.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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