Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Transport research program, 50, adds rail to mix

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After a half-century, America's celebrated cooperative model of transportation research has gained a railroad focus.

CATS LRTOn June 19th, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) celebrated its 50th anniversary. For half a century, research into technical, administrative and economic aspects of road building has been carried out through pooled public funding that yielded knowledge beyond the reach of any one state's highway budget and research capacity.

And while America's highway building boom certainly produced a range of outcomes—think of the Cross-Bronx Expressway for one of the more problematic results—there is little question that cooperative research has made for better outcomes across the board.

To ensure the scientific objectivity and independence of this research from any organization's agenda, this program has been administered by the Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Research Council. The payoff from cooperative research on highways prompted a replication of this research model to study public transit, hazardous materials, and freight movements. Thousands of papers presented at the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting, and hundreds of reports available freely on the TRB's cooperative research programs web site attest to the creativity and diversity of these investigations.

This distinguished record is relevant to railroaders because the National Cooperative Railroad Research Program is just now being launched, after a long gestation period of deliberation, planning, and administrative organization. Federal funds were initially authorized in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) and close to $3 million funded through an allocation of high-speed rail funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 have now reached the point of expenditure.

In May, I joined colleagues from Class I railroads, APTA, AAR, Amtrak, regional passenger railroads, state departments of transportation, rail labor organizations, the FRA, and the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) at the Transportation Research Board's headquarters in Washington, D.C., for the inaugural meeting of the NCRRP Oversight Committee. We had been appointed by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood to reflect a range of perspectives on America's railroad sector. After reviewing 50 research problem statements that had been submitted through the Transportation Research Board's committee system, we selected the most pressing research topics that could advance knowledge not already being explored by the AAR, the FRA, or other known research initiatives.

The Oversight Committee approved seven research initiatives will fill in some important gaps in knowledge about American railroading. These research areas will include: passenger rail's energy efficiency; tools and procedures for planning intercity passenger rail service; passenger rail economic analysis; building and retaining railroad workforce capacity; innovative financing for passenger and freight rail projects; options for passenger rail delivery through multi-state organizations, and legal aspects of rail programs. These findings could lay the foundation for significant performance advances in these under-examined dimensions of North American railroading.

A defining characteristic of all TRB cooperative research programs is the appointment of project panels to produce a request for proposals, select the project research team from those who respond, and then oversee their work. These project panels are comprised of individuals with experience that would be directly relevant to the research topic. Panel members serve without compensation, but travel expenses to panel meetings are reimbursed. Readers who would like to serve on a panel should review the projects and nomination criteria here.

Having served on project panels for the Highway and Transit Cooperative Research Programs, I heartily recommend this opportunity to help guide the creation of knowledge. Don't be shy about putting yourself forward, if you feel that you meet the qualifications outlined on the nomination form.

Hopefully, in 2062, our successors will be celebrating a centenary of the Highway Cooperative Research Program and a half-century of the Railroad Cooperative Research Program. And at this milestone, the work that this generation has put into taking the rail mode's research activity to the next level will be duly recognized and much appreciated.

Anthony Perl

Anthony Perl is Director of the Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia; he has previously worked at the City University of New York, the University of Calgary, and Université Lumière in Lyon, France. He has authored or co-authored four books, most recently Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil (2010). Anthony's research crosses disciplinary and national boundaries to explore the policy decisions that affect transportation, cities and the environment. He has published in scholarly journals such as Energy Policy, Transportation Research, Transportation Quarterly, World Transport Policy and Practice, and Scientific American. Perl’s work been awarded prizes for outstanding papers presented at the World Conference on Transport Research and the Canadian Transportation Research Forum. He currently chairs the Rail Group of the U.S. Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Research Council.