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Posts Tagged ‘FRA’

The Oxnard Derailment

On February 24th, a Metrolink train struck a pickup truck that was hauling an empty trailer. Normally such a collision would be no big deal. But in this instance, the train derailed spectacularly, with passenger cars strewn about. Dozens of passengers were injured and the train engineer was killed.

This scenario wasn’t supposed to happen. Metrolink had spared no expense in building new trains to meet the latest FRA safety specifications. The Hyundai-built train was equipped with crumple zones, and special couplers to keep trains aligned and upright in a derailment. None of these supposed safety features functioned as expected. An internal report blames shoddy workmanship:

The confidential report states that the manufacturer failed to meet design specifications that Metrolink required for cow-catchers on cab cars. The unmet specifications related to struts that extended into the car body and a requirement that cow-catchers be able to withstand a load of 100,000 pounds. The document noted that the specifications “may need to be more robust.”

In addition, the report stated that the cow-catcher had some poor welds and that other parts of the device “showed probable failure” despite extra brackets and good welding in other places. A photo attached to the report shows that the cow-catcher had broken off the cab car. Arrows point to four weld failures and areas where bolts were sheared off.

According to the report, a metallurgist found that one of the two failed couplers displayed evidence of a manufacturing defect known as porosity — a casting flaw that causes voids and bubbles to form in the metal.

Not to defend Hyundai, but the real problem isn’t poor quality control, but rather bad train design, and Buy-America trade-protectionism. There are any number of overseas manufacturers who could have sold Metrolink a service-proven trainset. But because Metrolink isn’t allowed to buy trains overseas, Hyundai had to create a whole new facility in the US, and set up a domestic parts stream. That is a complicated endeavor. And the trains themselves are of a custom design, largely dreamed up by government bureaucrats. It is no wonder the Metrolink train is defective.

The most distressing part of this fiasco, though, is the failed coupler. Most newer regional/commuter trains don’t even have couplers, because the world has moved on to articulated trains. Articulated trains have many benefits — one of which is that they are much less prone to jackknifing in derailments. But US rail planners continue to oppose the use of articulated trains, for truly baffling reasons.

oxnard

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The customer is always right

When it comes to trainset procurement, the US is a bureaucratic and technological basketcase. Vendors have to navigate the byzantine Buy-America and FRA rules. You can get a sense of the dysfunction in the Questions-and-Answers submitted during the early stages of the bidding process for the new Acela rolling stock.

A number of questions regard the conflicting requirements. These trains are supposed to be “proven designs” and yet be made in America. Obviously both can’t be true. One vendor asks:

As the FRA will place unique requirements on this equipment, it would be helpful to provide an understanding of how much change will be permitted to a “Service Proven” design before it is no longer considered to be the same design.

Might a syntactic change be a way to get around this conundrum?

Because of the special requirement and constraint of Amtrak operating conditions…and Tier III compliance, a lot of design changes will be necessitated from the “Service Proven” equipment. Physical appearance might be different from the existing “Service Proven “equipment. As such, the requirement of service proven or a variant thereof should be read as “developed with proven technologies”.

Tier III compliance in this case means having to design around the ridiculous FRA buff strength requirement:

Due to the (not yet fully known) impact of the (not yet published) FRA Tier III requirements…it is likely that axle loads of “proven” equipment will exceed 17 tonne. The TSI permits operation of 18 tonne axles at speeds to within less than 5 mph of the maximum specified by Amtrak; consideration should be given to allowing this slight increase in speed over the limit set by the TSI.

The FRA denied that request, as well as two other requests to reduce the buff-strength requirement.

And then there is the problem for how to compute a price:

There are components which are not available in the US at the moment. How can we state the price to be made in the US? Shall we include an investment cost, technology transfer cost including patent? This requirement does not seem realistic.

So it would appear that the FRA learned nothing from the Acela-1 fiasco. The nonsensical design requirements will scare away bidders. With fewer bidders (plus the extreme cost of a full-custom trainset), the Acela-2 trains will probably be really expensive. Hopefully, Acela-2 won’t be as unreliable.

 

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As you may recall from last month, the disabled community was furious over plans to build plans to build a brand new Amtrak station in Roanoke (VA) without level-platform boarding. The VDOT was oblivious to an FRA rule that went into effect in 2012 requiring level-platform boarding at new stations, and are now in a bit of a pickle:

On Sept. 30, the Federal Railroad Administration told the project team that federal officials believe a raised platform that would permit level boarding, without the need for wheelchair lifts, is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The project team includes Amtrak, Norfolk Southern and the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The state has budgeted nearly $100 million for the project, about 10 percent of it for the platform and a related train servicing facility.

Jennifer Mitchell, who directs the department, said Oct. 21 the state prefers raised platforms and the level boarding they offer. But in Roanoke, “the site just won’t allow it,” she said.

The project team wants to build a low platform consisting of a concrete or asphalt slab near ground level. Riders would use a portable mechanical lift on the platform or stairs inside the car to board.

The state tried to argue that a high-level platform would obstruct freight traffic, even though the platform is on a siding. The FRA wasn’t convinced:

In late August, Amtrak, on behalf of the state, told regulators that Roanoke qualified for a waiver, saying freight traffic “exists directly adjacent to the platform” planned along Norfolk Avenue.

The request seemed to be based on a plan to install about 1,700 feet of track specifically for Amtrak service next to Norfolk Southern’s existing freight lines next year. The platform, to be built next, would sit beside it. Norfolk Southern has said the railroad intends to run freight trains over the platform track except when a passenger train is at the platform.

But the federal rail agency didn’t appear to buy the argument.

“We find that this is new construction of a platform track that diverges from the freight main,” the federal railroad agency said Sept. 30 in a position statement that remains unchanged. “Under these circumstances a level boarding platform is required.”

Virginia rail planners are still trying to pursue a waiver, and making threats that the project will be significantly delayed if it isn’t granted. However, the FRA rule is quite clear, and gross incompetence is no reason to grant a waiver.

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The National Troupe of Silly Bureaucrats (NTSB) wants to downgrade Washington Metro into a commuter-rail service. They are recommending that Metro be brought under FRA regulation:

Metro’s safety problems are so severe and persistent that federal officials should take a much stronger role in monitoring the subway system: reclassifying it as a commuter railroad so the transit agency can be subject to tougher regulations and penalties, the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday.

In an “urgent” recommendation to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the safety board’s chairman, Christopher A. Hart, cited years of “repeated and ongoing deficiencies” in Metro and said the current oversight process, involving the Federal Transit Administration, is inadequate and bound to keep failing.

Hart urged Foxx to ask Congress for the authority to reclassify Metro as a commuter railroad, which would remove the subway from the FTA’s safety oversight and place it under the “robust inspection, oversight, regulatory, and enforcement authority” of the larger, more powerful Federal Railroad Administration.

As if Washington Metro didn’t have enough problems.

Once it becomes an FRA-regulated railroad, Metro would need waivers just to run lightweight equipment. Metro would have to deal with all the ridiculous operating rules, like mandatory brake-checks at the start of reach run. The costs would be staggering.

He [Hart] also mentioned the Aug. 6 derailment of a train — which was not carrying passengers — between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations.

Right…because the FRA has done such a fantastic job of preventing derailments on MetroNorth and Amtrak.

The Federal Railroad Administration oversees “heavy” systems — freight and commuter lines, such as MARC and VRE, as well as Amtrak. But the closest system to an urban subway that the administration oversees is the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) line, a 14-mile rapid transit link between New Jersey and New York. About half of PATH’s tracks are underground.

In its recommendation, the NTSB uses PATH as the model for FRA regulation of Metro. But as I pointed out last year, FRA regulation of PATH has been an unmitigated disaster. FRA rules increase PATH operating costs by a factor of 3 — and haven’t done anything to improve safety.

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Heckuva Job Obama

feinburgHaving deep experience in the railroad industry isn’t necessarily a good thing for running the FRA (case in point: Joe Szabo). But an FRA Administrator should at least have some technical or transportation background:

Feinberg has a resume loaded with high-level jobs as a communications specialist and Democratic staffer. She was an assistant to Rahm Emanuel when he was President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff and later director of communications and corporate strategy at Facebook. She also worked on Capitol Hill for years, as communications director for the House Democratic Caucus and as national press secretary for former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Feinberg was formerly married to Dan Pfeiffer, a key White House adviser whose service to the president dates back to Obama’s days as senator from Illinois.

But her executive experience doesn’t include running anything the size and complexity of the FRA, and she does not have much experience with railroads. That’s led some to question whether she’s a good fit to lead an agency widely thought to need an urgent overhaul.

One of the (many) failings of the Bush Administration was its appointment of unqualified political hacks to key positions. People like Michael Brown to run FEMA, or the GOP ideologues who ran the provisional government in Iraq. You would think the Obama Administration would not repeat that kind of mistake.

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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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