Personnel Profile: Bill Bronte

Bill Bronte is the chief of Caltrans Division of Rail. September is Rail Safety Awareness Month, a statewide effort to prevent accidents at railway crossings.

What is the most important thing the public should know about rail safety?
One that I will say, and it’s my bias, is simply to increase awareness. Make people aware that the train is out there, the train goes faster than you think it does when you look at it, and takes longer to stop than you think. One of the things we’re starting to see, and you see it in some of the legislation that’s recently been passed, has been the issue of distracted driving. Whether you’re distracted by texting or a phone call, I think that it begins to impact drivers in safety. Your brain is going at so many miles an hour, doing so many different things, but you’re not focusing on the act of driving as much as you should.

Driving has become almost a passive activity, and it should be an active one on the part of the driver. They should be aware of where they are at all times. I think another aspect is the pace of our lives is such that we want to get there faster. So we want to make short cuts at grade crossings [crossings at the same level as the rail road tracks], when we really shouldn’t. It’s not so much the improvements of roadways and grade crossings, I think it’s very much an issue of public awareness and concentration.

What is the future of rail safety in California going to look like?
We have had an ongoing state and federal partnership with the Section 130 program, and that is going to continue. I know both railroads have very active efforts to close the number of private crossings down in the [Central Valley], crossings that developed primarily in the agricultural areas. We’re also looking at a continuing effort, funded by ourselves and the Federal Railroad Administration, on Operation Lifesaver. Very honestly, in a perfect world, I’d love to have more money for a little more outreach, to make more improvements.

We’re going to be sponsoring a study by the National Highway Research Program, funded through the National Institute of Science, to quantify the economic losses that occur at grade crossing accidents. There are some who say that there are so few grade crossing accidents relative to the number of highway accidents that it’s not as important and you don’t need to invest at the same levels into grade crossing safety. But, when there’s an accident and it closes railroads, it impacts families. We think there’s a huge economic cost not being captured in the current metrics.

Has ridership increased in recent years?
This year, on both a state and federal fiscal year basis, two of our three corridors will be setting ridership records. This year in the San Joaquin Corridor, which is the nation’s fifth busiest intercity passenger corridor, we’re going to go over a million passengers for the first time. We’ve seen suspiring ridership growth in the area, which has been very hard-hit by the current economy. The Capitol Corridor, that runs between Sacramento and the Bay Area, the third busiest in the country with over 1.6 million riders, also set ridership and revenue records for the state and federal fiscal year. And the Pacific Surfliner, down in the San Diego-L.A. area, had its second best ever ridership year, only 3 percent less than our record year, 2007, and back then the economy was doing a heck of a lot better than it’s doing now and gas prices were much higher. So doing as well as we’ve been doing is a testament to everybody’s interest in passenger rail in California.

What is your role as chief of Caltrans Division of Rail?
Division of Rail has a little bit of everything in it. We support and fund the Amtrak California services. We are also the implementing agency for the Federal Section 130 Program, a provision in the federal code that sets aside funding for grade-crossing protection. The projects are identified by the Public Utilities Commission, and they develop the priority list, but we are the ones that acutely negotiate with the railroads to develop and build the improvements at the particular grade crossing.

We also have a state funded portion, known as a Section 190 Program, and that is a grade separation program. That’s where we work with the railroads and local agencies to construct an over- or under-crossing of railroad tracks, where we physically separate the road from the railroad tracks.

We also have our own capital program funded out of Proposition 1B in 2006 and 1A in 2008, where we work with railroads to build capital improvements to their facilities, that allow them to run faster, more efficiently, or run additional trains. In essence, we are providing replacement capacity to the Class 1 railroads for the capacity we take by operating a passenger train.

We have the largest state-owned equipment fleet in the country, totally separate from the Amtrak cars, of 88 cars and 14 locomotives. We are also the lead agency, of what will be about a $5 million procurement of additional rolling stock that will be funded out of ARRA, the stimulus out of 2008. That’s going to be 150 cars and 36 locomotives, and we’re partnering with the states of Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, and Missouri. We’re really excited about that, as well. We have a bunch of fun stuff going on and not enough people.

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