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Posts Tagged ‘FRA’

PATH Crippled by FRA Regulations

Bloomberg has an interesting article on the poorly managed PATH system. Even though PATH is basically a subway, the system is three times more expensive to operate compared to the NY subway. Mismanagement by the Port Authority is certainly one reason. But another problem is that PATH is regulated by the FRA:

Federal Railroad Administration regulations, higher maintenance costs and round-the-clock service have boosted spending compared with other transit systems, Port Authority officials say.

A major difference between PATH and the New York subway system is that the trans-Hudson rail is regulated by the FRA while the Federal Transit Administration oversees the subway. The FRA imposes stricter safety standards and labor requirements, imposing higher costs, Port Authority officials said.

Before each run, PATH workers must test a train’s air brakes, signals and acceleration, Mike Marino, PATH’s deputy director, said in a telephone interview. When a train gets to its terminus, workers repeat the test. In addition, every 90 days all of PATH’s rail cars undergo a three-day inspection at a facility in Harrison, New Jersey. Brakes, lights, communications, heating and air conditioning, signals and odometers are all checked, Marino said.

“It’s a very intense inspection on every piece of rolling stock,” he said.

Although the Port Authority has tried to switch its regulator to the Federal Transit Administration, the FRA has opposed a switch for safety reasons, Marino said. PATH runs parallel to high-speed trains operated by NJ Transit, Amtrak and freight-line CSX Corp.

I’m sure that FRA-mandated HVAC check is essential for saving lives.

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Over at Railway Age, Frank Wilner has some scathing criticism of the FRA’s proposed two-person crew mandate. According to Wilner, there is no factual basis for two-man crews, which leads to the suspicion that the purpose is union featherbedding:

In 2009, the FRA said it had “no factual evidence to support [a] prohibition against one-person crew operations.” The California Public Utilities Commission concluded a two-person crew “could aggravate engineer distraction,” while the National Transportation Safety Board does not oppose phasing out two-person crews as other safety enhancements, such as PTC, are implemented.

Yet in April, the FRA, at the urging of labor, said it would promulgate a rule requiring two-person crews. Privately, some at FRA disparage the agency’s effort as “the Book of Mormon,” saying FRA lacks data, and its arguments are ubiquitous with the term, “we believe.”

Regulatory actions should be data driven. Yet when a carrier official suggested a data-driven approach, an FRA official responded—according to FRA-prepared meeting minutes—“What would be the objective of this exercise?” That the FRA administrator is a former union officer legitimately adds to anxieties.

Congressional oversight may soon probe what really is going on, and surely if the FRA proceeds, a federal court challenge, accompanied by extensive pre-trial discovery, will focus sunlight. Clearly not the FRA’s finest hour, this may well be its nadir.

The FRA has never been data-driven. It is all hocus pocus and pseudo-science.

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FRA Review Of Texas HSR

For its high-speed rail project, the Texas Central Railroad is proposing to use Japanese Shinkansen (“Bullet Train”) technology. The Shinkansen is, by all accounts, the world’s safest train system. There have been no fatalities in 50 years of operation. So it is amusing that the FRA would give its expertise on the safety of the technology. Robert Eckels, President of the TCR, describes some of their interactions with the FRA:

Remember how the FRA was developing “alternate compliance” rules to allow the use of off-the-shelf trains? Retrofitting half-inch steel plates into a proven design doesn’t sound very off-the-shelf.

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Two Isn’t Better Than One

Jarrett Walker has good reason to be concerned about FRA rulemaking on crew size. This slide comes from a recent meeting of the FRA Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC):

rsac

From an FRA point of view, this new rule does not change anything. Commuter railroads in the US have historically used conductors and train attendants.

But it is a really inefficient use of labor. Industry best practice is to have just one crewmember (the driver). Ticket validation can best be handled throrugh random POP inspections. If this rule goes into effect, it will be another obstacle to modernizing passenger rail. DMU operations would be especially problematic. Imagine if the new Marin-Sonoma “SMART” service had to use two crewmembers. Sure they might apply for an FRA waiver, but why create more bureaucratic headaches?

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MBTA’s Buggy Railcars

Here is a textbook example of all the problems Buy-America causes for new railcar orders:

A long-awaited fleet of MBTA commuter rail cars, delivered 2½ years late by the South Korean manufacturer, is now so plagued by mechanical, engineering, and software problems that it has to be shipped to a facility in Rhode Island to be fitted with new parts.

Even as a T spokesman described the problems with the cars as “standard operating procedure,” rail workers and their union representatives said the situation is unprecedented, and federal officials acknowledged they are “monitor[ing] the situation closely.”

“In my 40-some years of railroad experience, we’ve never seen problems like this,” said Tom Murray, president of the local chapter of the Transport Workers Union of America.

But Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials say the problems — including issues with doors, air-conditioning, brakes, and signal software — are a normal part of introducing new, more technologically advanced train cars into a transit system.

“Railroad coaches are not like new autos that a buyer drives off the lot,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. “Modifications are made as necessary. . . . This is standard operating procedure throughout the transit industry.”

First, you have to marvel at the MBTA blaming the problems on a more “technologically advanced” train car. For God’s sake, these are primitive commuter coaches. To think that toilets, air-conditioning, and doors are some bleeding edge technology!

But Pesaturo is technically correct that all this debugging is “standard operating procedure” for the US transit industry. That is because railcars have to be custom-designed — in order to comply with the Buy-America rules, and the FRA nonsense.

There is a better way. Let’s do what every other transit agency in the world does: use off-the-shelf trains, follow the global standards. Why shouldn’t the MBTA buy railcars just like the new auto buyer?

So it was inevitable that MBTA’s special-snowflake trains would go through a considerable amount of debugging. This will go on for years. It is not only expensive, but dangerous:

Some of the problems center on the control cars, which are designed to be driven by engineers at the front of the train. The cars cannot be used on rail lines owned by Amtrak, which run south of Boston, because the car’s software is incompatible with the signal system. In some instances, signals inside the train indicate that the engineer has the OK to proceed when outside signals indicate that the train must wait. In those cases, engineers noticed that the signals did not match up and reported the problem.

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On the subject of horn blasting, FRA officials will always say that safety is their primary concern. But in fact, the rule can do more harm than good. An egregious example is the iconic tracks in San Clemente, California.

san_clemente_amtrak

The tracks run past a beach with heavy pedestrian traffic. With no formal crossings, people just crossed wherever. This was obviously very dangerous, so the city proposed a reasonable solution — formal pedestrian crossings, with audible warning systems and other safety features. Fences and landscaping would discourage crossing, except at the designated locations. The idea was that the wayside audible warning system would provide as good (if not better) safety compared to train-mounted horns blasted from a quarter-mile away.

San Clemente applied to the FRA to obtain quiet-zone status for the crossings, but was not successful. The city then approached the PUC, asking the commission to approve quiet-zone status anyway.

Surprisingly, the PUC went along and the crossings were built. But the BNSF railroad derailed the plan, arguing that the FRA had primary jurisdiction over quiet-zones. BNSF filed a lawsuit against the PUC.

In BNSF Railway v. PUC  Judge Robie sided with BNSF. The result is that trains now have to blast horns whereas they didn’t used to (before crossings were installed). The neighbors are understandably livid about that.

While Judge Robie may be correct on the law, this is still bad policy. In his analysis of the case, UCSD Law Professor Shaun Martin notes:

The opinion might benefit from a recognition that this result is suboptimal. For everyone. It harms homeowners (as well as beach visitors). It discourages cities like San Clemente from enhancing pedestrian safety (since the result will be massive annoyance to its homeowners). It seems not to advance public safety in the slightest. It’s simply the result of an ossified historical structure — the traditional use of horns located on the train — that does not comport with modern technological capacity.

How did we ever get to the point where FRA rules prevent cities from fixing pedestrian hazards?

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The investigation has just begun, but it is likely that the NTSB will find that the fatal Metro-North derailment was due to excessive speed. It is precisely the kind of accident that PTC would have prevented.

But the FRA has a different view. FRA Administrator Joe Szabo sent a blistering letter to the MTA complaining of unspecified problems in its safety culture:

The Federal Railroad Administration today called for mandatory safety retraining of Metro-North workers and the creation of a confidential reporting system that lets employees report safety concerns, according to a letter from the agency to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It directed MTA, which operates the railroad, to respond by Dec. 6. The MTA needs to show its employees “a serious, good faith commitment to the safe operation of the system and inform them of the steps that MTA will take to enhance safety in both the short- and long-term,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote in the letter to MTA Chief Executive Officer Thomas Prendergast.

At best, his letter is premature. At worst, it is disingenuous for trying to deflect blame from the FRA.

Historically, the FRA was opposed to PTC technology (until Congress intervened in 2008). Since that time, the FRA has botched the PTC implementation. Rather than pointing fingers, the FRA needs to answer why the PTC implementation is taking so long, despite being a turn-key technology.

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