Posts Tagged ‘FRA’

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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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):


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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