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Section 4: Rail Studies

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Intercity Passenger Rail Studies

The Multimodal Section participates in managing feasibility studies for potential new or enhanced intercity passenger rail service. Such participation could be in a lead or supporting role, depending upon the circumstances.

The proposed service could include the traditional service on a daily or less-frequent basis, such as provided by Amtrak. It also includes studies of commuter rail service, which would be passenger rail service on a several-times-per-day basis, usually provided on rail tracks shared with freight operations. Note that this is different from light-rail transit service, which would be provided by a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) on track not shared by a freight railroad. Studies of light-rail transit service would be coordinated through the Public Transportation Division.

Procedure. In order for a planner, agency, or organization to conduct a comprehensive intercity passenger rail feasibility study, the following items should be completed:

  • Identify and select stakeholders to oversee the study process. In addition to the TxDOT districts involved and the appropriate TxDOT divisions, typical stakeholders may include: urban, rural, and specialized transit providers; council(s) of governments (COGs), MPOs, major employers, colleges, universities, and trade schools; and cities, towns, and counties. These stakeholders could provide staff to form a Steering Committee to oversee the conduct of the feasibility study.
  • Define the corridor.
  • Review and distill existing, appropriate findings that might apply to the feasibility study, as found in prior or on-going studies.
  • Prepare a public involvement plan.
  • Determine the administrative, operational, and financial feasibility of an intercity passenger rail operation within the study corridor.
  • Estimate the potential demand for passenger rail service in the corridor and develop preliminary ridership estimates/forecasts from opening day and extending through the design year, at different fare and service levels.
  • Describe natural and socioeconomic characteristics within the corridor, including employment, educational, population, land use, and residential patterns and future trends.
  • Prepare preliminary passenger rail operating plans, costs, and revenues for a range of levels of service.
  • Estimate rolling stock alternatives and costs.
  • Determine relationship to local airports, Amtrak, and transit systems. Include rural transit systems and ascertain approximate station locations.
  • Estimate corridor track and signal requirements with approximate resulting costs; relate those costs to levels of service.
  • Determine grade crossing and grade separation locations and estimate order-of-magnitude costs for upgrades or closures.
  • Ascertain compatibility with freight train movements in existing corridor.
  • Prepare possible financing scenarios. Estimate operating revenues, capital costs, and operating and maintenance costs. Estimate annual operating shortfalls, and the appropriate subsidy, if necessary. Estimate insurance needs.
  • Prepare a start-up budget and schedule for initial implementation.
  • Outline administrative and training needs for start-up.
  • Develop an outline of possible operating scenarios including, but not limited to, a possible operating agreement with corridor owner (typically a freight railroad).
  • Identify and describe the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts of intercity passenger rail in the corridor. (Typically a “fatal flaw” analysis only. If the project is determined to be feasible, detailed environmental impact analysis could be conducted at a later stage in the project development process.) Factors to be considered include: air quality; hydrology/water quality; soils and unique geological features; floodplains; hazardous waste; noise, vibration, light, and turbulence; wildlife habitat and vegetation; archaeological and historic sites; land use; governmental plans and policies; socio-economic factors; land use compatibility; neighborhood impacts and displacements; and economic development.
  • Prepare and present interim and final reports to the Steering Committee for concurrence.
  • Steering Committee presents final report and recommendations to TxDOT for further consideration in the project planning process.

Examples. Two examples are:

  • Austin-San Antonio Corridor Commuter Rail Feasibility Study
  • Gulf Coast Rail Corridor

TTC directed TxDOT to conduct a study to determine the feasibility of commuter passenger rail service between Austin and San Antonio (Minute Order No. 106920). Elected officials, corridor agencies, and other entities from the cities of Austin and San Antonio requested the study. Funding for the study was provided by TxDOT, Capital Area MPO, San Antonio-Bexar County MPO, Capital Metro, and VIA Metropolitan Transit.

TxDOT contracted the consulting firm of Carter & Burgess to conduct the feasibility study. Three series of public involvement meetings were held to receive input on the various aspects of the potential commuter rail service. The feasibility study was completed in August 1999 with publication of a final report that summarized the purpose of the study, various options for the service, evaluation criteria, and recommendations. The final report, feasibility study, public information newsletters, and corridor maps are available for review on the TxDOT web page at http://www.dot.state.tx.us/mis/aus-sat/study.htm.

TxDOT contributed to a feasibility study regarding an incremental increase in speed along the Amtrak Sunset Limited route between Houston and Lake Charles, Louisiana. The U.S. Department of Transportation included this rail line in late 1998 as part of the larger Gulf Coast High Speed Rail Corridor.

The overall project is coordinated by the Southern Rapid Rail Transit Commission, and includes state government and transportation officials from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. TxDOT’s primary role is to monitor the project to ensure that grade crossing safety is maintained in Texas and that federal money for grade crossing improvements is obtained.

TxDOT has filed an application for hazard elimination funds in high-speed railroad corridors under Section 1103(c) of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. These funds are to be used to identify and create plans to eliminate hazards that could impact higher-speed rail service in identified corridors. These hazards include railroad-highway grade crossings, substandard track conditions, and signal system deficiencies.

The Multimodal Section is coordinating this effort in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration, the Traffic Operations Division, the Houston District, the Beaumont District, the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the Jefferson-Orange Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Southern Rapid Rail Transit Commission.

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Freight Rail Studies

As directed, the Multimodal Section organizes studies for potential new or enhanced freight rail service. The Multimodal Section will also provide freight rail planning assistance to district and division offices when requested. Such studies may vary greatly in scope.

Procedure. The following procedure is an example of how various agencies and organizations might conduct a comprehensive freight rail study. An abbreviated version of this process may be conducted when an existing freight line is proposed for abandonment or discontinuance before STB.

  • Identify stakeholders to refine the study process. Typical stakeholders may include: shippers of bulky or high-volume cargoes, such as farmers, ranchers, building material suppliers, utility companies using coal; freight carriers, such as trucking firms, steamship firms, barge operators and railroads; and residents of the proposed corridor as well as the TxDOT districts involved and the appropriate TxDOT divisions. These stakeholders could provide input during the conduct of the feasibility study.
  • Define the origins and destinations of the commodities being studied.
  • Define the corridor.
  • Review and distill existing, appropriate findings that might apply to the study, as found in prior or on-going studies.
  • Determine the costs and benefits of freight rail operation within the study corridor.
  • Prepare preliminary freight rail operating plans, costs, and revenues for a range of levels of service.
  • Estimate rolling stock alternatives and costs.
  • Determine relationship to local airports, seaports, and intermodal facilities.
  • Estimate corridor track and signal requirements with approximate resulting costs. Relate those costs to levels of service.
  • Determine grade crossing and grade separation locations and estimate order-of-magnitude costs for upgrades or closures.
  • Ascertain connectivity with Class I freight lines near the corridor.
  • Prepare possible financing scenarios. Estimate operating revenues, capital costs, and operating and maintenance costs. Estimate annual operating shortfalls, and the appropriate subsidy, if necessary. Estimate insurance needs.
  • Prepare a start-up budget and schedule for initial implementation.
  • Outline administrative and training needs for start-up.
  • Develop an outline of possible operating scenarios including, but not limited to, a possible operating agreement with nearby Class I freight railroads and major shippers in the corridor.
  • Identify and describe the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts of freight rail in the corridor. (Typically a “fatal flaw” analysis only. If the project is determined to be feasible, detailed environmental impact analysis could be conducted at a later stage in the project development process.) Factors to be considered include: air quality; hydrology/water quality; soils and unique geological features; floodplains; hazardous waste; noise, vibration, light, and turbulence; wildlife habitat and vegetation; archaeological and historic sites; land use; governmental plans and policies; socio-economic factors; land use compatibility; neighborhood impacts and displacements; and economic development.
  • Prepare and present interim and final reports to the Steering Committee for concurrence.
  • Steering Committee presents final report and recommendations to TxDOT for further consideration in the project planning process.
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Rail Research Studies

Various research projects that examine the role of railroads in the Texas transportation system have been completed, are underway, or have been proposed for future consideration. These studies have examined rail programs, policies, and plans in other states and offered suggestions for how TxDOT might develop its rail planning function. Other studies include the role of Texas rural rail districts and the impact of Mexican railroad privatization. These studies may be initiated through the department’s research program, mandated by the legislature, or developed in cooperation with other agencies.

Example. An example is HB 2809, passed by the 76th Texas Legislature and signed into law by the governor, directed TxDOT (in cooperation with the Texas Department of Agriculture and Texas Railroad Commission) to conduct a study of the cost and benefits of grain transportation by truck and by railroad.

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