DMUs, the FRA, and Enviromental Law Reform

This month’s Planning magazine features an article (paywalled for non-APA members, sorry) by longtime California planner William Fulton about the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, the state’s demanding, and notorious, environmental review law. Somewhat surprisingly for people outside the field (I’m assuming), but well-known to people in the planning world, CEQA is actually basically a monster:

Reforming CEQA is high on the agenda in Sacramento at the beginning of every legislative session. Gov. Jerry Brown, perhaps the most outspoken environmentalist governor in the country, calls reforming CEQA “the Lord’s work.” Three of his predecessors — two Republicans and a Democrat — have called for it to be overhauled. Everybody, it seems, complains about CEQA all the time.

Yet except for some nibbling around the edges in the last couple of years, CEQA remains largely unreformed. In the absence of a more logical system, it is the tool that almost everybody uses to gain leverage over development projects, no matter what their goal. NIMBYs, not surprisingly, use it to slow down or kill projects they don’t like. (One recent analysis found that 60 percent of CEQA lawsuits target infill development.)

Follow anyone who cares about policy issues in California, from pretty much any ideological perspective, on Twitter, and you will hear endless complaints about CEQA. And yet, it survives. And while CEQA is (thankfully) limited to California, the federal equivalent, NEPA, suffers from some of the same problems.

Returning to California, though, we find SANBAG, the MPO and council of governments for San Bernardino County, planning an extension of rail service from San Bernardino to Redlands. The project isn’t in and of itself a particularly bad one; it’s pretty low-key, in an existing right-of-way with few obstacles, and serves an area that could generate OK ridership. Though the new line will connect to Metrolink service at San Bernardino, planners are currently leaning towards running it with Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trains, such as those used by NICTD’s Sprinter service between Oceanside and Escondido. That’s probably the right choice; planned frequencies (30 minutes at peak) don’t justify electrification, and a pure extension of Metrolink service couldn’t offer the desired level of service.

When you use DMUs, though, you have to make a choice. DMUs aren’t particularly common in the US, and most used outside of this country don’t live up to the Federal Railroad Administration’s notoriously obsolete crash-safety standards. “Noncompliant” European-style DMUs are faster, cheaper, quieter, and cleaner than conventional American locomotive-hauled equipment–or the few relatively crappy FRA-compliant DMUs in existence today–a point that is backed up strongly in SANBAG’s Environmental Impact Statement on the project. Because the line only hosts one freight train a week, it would be relatively trivial for SANBAG to obtain a time-separation waiver, allowing noncompliant DMUs to operate freely most of the time, as they do on the River Line in New Jersey, Capital Metro in Austin, Denton County’s A-Train, and the Sprinter. But as Americans, we cannot be content with allowing one body of law to regulate rail safety, so CEQA and NEPA must have their say:

In the case of an FRA-compliant diesel multiple unit (DMU) vehicle type (regulated under 49 CFR Part 238, Passenger Equipment Safety Standards), which has similar crashworthiness as heavy rail equipment, the operation would be no different than what is described above under a traditional “push-pull” locomotive and passenger carriage type operation. If a non-FRA compliant DMU is selected for use on the Project, it can operate only upon approval of a waiver to certain sections of the 49 CFR Part 211. Such an operation may then be subject to oversight by the CPUC under the State Safety Oversight Program (49 CFR Part 659). The potential safety issue introduced by a non-compliant DMU vehicle type would result in an adverse effect under NEPA. Under CEQA, this impact would be considered significant. To minimize this adverse effect, as part of Mitigation Measure SS-1, SANBAG would develop a plan for a safe shared use operation and obtain the appropriate regulatory approval from FRA and CPUC (as applicable). (emphasis mine)

In other words, the attempt to use cleaner, quieter, and faster rail equipment–undoubtedly an environmental win–falls afoul not just of rail safety regulations, but of environmental law as well. In the real world, mitigation to satisfy CEQA and NEPA here is relatively easy and wouldn’t consist of anything more than SANBAG would have to do anyhow to obtain an FRA waiver; but the involvement of environmental law in this case–and taking an absurd position!–is at the very least a minor irritant that showcases the need for reform, and at the worst a major time waster and cost accelerant.

It’s worth noting (though I’m hardly the first to do so, as the links above demonstrate) that the case for FRA’s regulations is incredibly weak to begin with. Caltrain, the commuter service on the San Francisco Penninsula, received the most far-reaching waiver that FRA is known to have yet awarded for its future electrification project. Their assessment showed that European-style trains are uniformly safer in the case of a grade-crossing collision, and that for trains leading with a cab car, FRA’s crash-worthiness requirements showed clear benefits only in the band between 15 and 25 mph of closing speed in the run-up to a crash:

And right there in Southern California, Metrolink has lost confidence in the safety of its new “Guardian Fleet” of tank-caliber, FRA-compliant cab cars (because of, mind you, a grade-crossing collision; perhaps they should have bought European equipment?) that it’s now running trains with a freight locomotive leading them. Caltrain’s simulations do seem to show that a locomotive-lead train would fare better in a crash scenario, which makes intuitive sense given how heavy a locomotive is. Of course, very few high-frequency rail operations operate with locomotives leading; for the most part it’s just not efficient.

The complexity–and obsolescence–of FRA regulation is one thing. But having environmental law considerations with an agenda other than what’s cleanest layered on top of it demonstrates the absurdity of the situation that transit planners and railroaders face today. Let’s reform the FRA, sure. But let’s not stay within our silos and stop there. As long as it goes unreformed, held captive to NIMBYs and special interests, environmental law will seep into every corner of planning…and not in a helpful way. Let’s fix this.