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October 26, 2009

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NEWS HEADLINES

FRA Releases Preliminary National Rail Plan
BY JOHN R. BELL, APTA Program Manager-Communications

In preparation for the construction of high-speed rail in the United States, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has released its Preliminary National Rail Plan (NRP), as mandated by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008.

FRA drafted the document in consultation with APTA and numerous other stakeholder groups. In its preparation of the final NRP, the agency will hold a series of webinars from December 2009 through February 2010 and regional meetings from March through May 2010. The agency will also invite written comments from the public.

The preliminary plan identifies four broad objectives and principles for passenger and freight rail to be undertaken in the development in the final NRP, which will make specific recommendations:
* Improving performance (safety, speed, reliability, comfort, and convenience);
* Better integrating all transportation modes by more accurately determining capacity and where intermodal connections can be improved;
* Identifying projects of national significance; and
* Increasing public awareness of the issues and potential benefits from improvements via an extensive public outreach effort.

FRA places great emphasis on the importance of multi-modal interconnectivity in the document, which states: “States should look at opportunities to exploit the inherent efficiencies of each of the modes and identify projects that will improve multimodal connections and travel. These strategic investments can repay the taxpayers many times over.”

The document also raises the issue of U.S.-based rail infrastructure manufacturing as an economic boon to the nation and a way for rail systems to save costs via economies of scale. But it notes that more standardization of equipment would be needed: “The development of passenger car standards that ensure interoperability of equipment and permit the same equipment to be used on various routes over the course of its designed lifetime could also result in lower unit costs and increased utilization.”

The preliminary plan calls for continued emphasis on workforce development: “This will provide for a highly technical work force at all levels that will be needed to build and operate [rail] systems.” Workforce development was a key initiative of APTA Immediate Past Chair Beverly A. Scott, Ph.D., which will continue under current Chair M.P. Carter.

Passenger rail has many unique benefits important to the nation, the document notes. These include such advances in rail safety as positive train control and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, as well as the inherent fuel efficiency of rail transit.

According to the FRA document, rail passengers consume 21 percent less energy per mile on average than car passengers and 17 percent less than airline passengers on short-haul flights. In addition, expansion of passenger rail will be key to developing more livable communities, the document states.

The document notes that an increasing population and growing economy demand the major expansion of passenger rail called for in PRIIA, adding that commuter rail grew by 28 percent between 1997 and 2007. In addition, travel on Amtrak has grown by more than one-third between 1998 and 2008, the FRA report says.

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