WASHINGTON — Two days of testimony that made up the second week of the Surface Transportation Board’s hearing on Amtrak Gulf Coast service delved into the intricacies of traffic modeling and its data inputs, and made clear both that ‘Amtrak had no role in this modeling, and reviewing changes to freight operations was not part of the process.
Mark Dingler, senior project manager for consulting firm HNTB, testified during the April 12 and April 14 sessions. His testimony revealed great collaboration between the consultants and the staff of the host railway.
But Amtrak was not involved, as it had been when rail traffic controller modeling was used to determine what infrastructure work might be needed to expand passenger service on the Washington-Richmond corridor, in Virginia, or CSX extensions over Norfolk Southern Virginia to Roanoke and Norfolk.
The hearing, originally scheduled for four days or less, is scheduled to begin its seventh day today (Monday, April 18) at 9:30 a.m. EDT, with an eighth day on Tuesday, April 19. If the hearing is not over on Tuesday, it will resume on May 11.
Modeling followed “standard practice”
Dingler explained during direct questioning by CSX attorney Ray Atkins and STB members that it is “standard practice” not to test schedule changes or train lengths. He says some infrastructure investment decisions have only a marginal impact on operations, such as reversing main and overtaking lanes in Harbin, Mississippi, so that a customer change can be managed from the siding.
Otherwise, information such as weeks of 2019 dispatcher data and interviews with supervisors about yard moves encroaching on the main line are randomized into 30 “seeds” or variations representing two-week periods. These are developed with and without passenger trains, with the proposed infrastructure package added to the 2019 data, as well as that projected for 2039 using an annual traffic growth rate of 1.5%.
Changing perspective on the New Orleans project
The consultant said 11 of the initial 14 projects were needed before any passenger service could begin, but he changed his mind about “extending the freight lead” of New Orleans’ Back Belt. In testimony, Dingler and Larry Guthrie of RL Banks and Associates, called as witnesses for Norfolk Southern on Thursday, said the $80 million, 12,000ft runway was deemed necessary after a site visit confirmed that it could be built.
Since a new lane would have to be built next to a canal and five road viaducts added in an urban area, cost was the original reason it was omitted from the list of projects. However, the RTC model showed that its addition would significantly reduce delays on NS and CSX interchange movements with Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern, Canadian National, and BNSF Railway.
The 2017 Gulf Coast task force report to Congress and CSX’s 2016 HDR study, which recommended $2.2 billion in improvements to New Orleans-Jacksonville, did little more than that. let’s not mention the impact of adding passenger trains to this short urban segment. But that was before the longer trains that are part of Precision Scheduled Railroading operating practices changed the dynamic.
What kind of ‘deficiency?’
Members also wondered how many of the modeling’s random motion-based infrastructure needs involved decisions that were actually controllable – which might matter because the board probably has to distinguish between what might qualify of permitted “reasonable impairment” and “unreasonable impairment” that the railroads claim will result from the addition of Amtrak trains.
CSX Atkins’ attorney revealed that HNTB’s Dingler had, in fact, run RTC iterations with shorter trains and tender-controlled drawbridges at a remote location. (The movements of high-speed trains carrying bridge tenders to and from their work sites are part of the traffic included in the modeling.) Since this occurred after the original and rebuttal submissions to the board were finalized, counsel for all parties have agreed to the results of these operational changes. would not be made public. In any case, even the slightest adjustments to Amtrak’s proposed schedules were never considered.
STB President Martin Oberman noted that while this evidence was withheld, “the board may have questions about other RTC models.” He expressed interest in seeing Dingler’s rejected “drafts” with different variables, but attorneys for CSX and NS argued that it was a privileged “working product” and therefore inadmissible.
Today’s and Tuesday’s hearing — which will feature testimony and cross-examination of witnesses for Mobile Port and Amtrak — will be streamed live on the STB’s YouTube channel, which also offers recordings of the six ceremonies. previous ones.