The FRA Doesn’t Need Reform – It Needs A Revolution

Via Systemic Failure, I’ve learned that the federal government is implementing regulatory reform, including some cosmetic changes to railroad regulations; for details, go to this file and see pages 30-41, 54-61, 105-106, 108-109, 112-113, and 115-127.

Drunk Engineer already rightly excoriates the FRA for sticking to its static buff strength regulations even in the face of positive train control, but the full quote given by the FRA to the SRC, which raised the issue, showcases Kafkaesque malevolence. On pages 39-40, the FRA says:

FRA’s regulatory approach to passenger equipment safety is balanced and does incorporate both crash avoidance and crashworthiness measures.  FRA necessarily considers the safety of the rail system as a whole, beginning with ways first to avoid an accident, such as through adherence to standards for railroad signal and operating systems (to avoid a collision) and railroad track (to avoid a derailment).  Yet, FRA is indeed concerned about mitigating the consequences of an accident, should one occur, and crashworthiness features are an essential complement to crash avoidance measures in providing for the overall safety of the rail system.

FRA has tailored the application of its crashworthiness standards.  See 49 CFR 238 Subpart C, and § 229.141.  SRC itself notes that, as a tourist railroad, it is exempt from the crashworthiness standards.  Similarly, FRA has established a policy to issue waivers under appropriate circumstances to help limit the impact of these standards on light rail equipment that shares use of trackage or rights-of-way with conventional rail equipment (see appendix A to 49 CFR part 211).  FRA has also continued to explore means of making its standards more performance-based.  FRA has developed guidelines through the RSAC process for waiver approval to use alternative, performance-based crashworthiness standards for passenger equipment operating at speeds up to 125 mph.  FRA is pursuing a similar approach through the RSAC process to develop standards for passenger rail equipment operating at speeds up to 220 mph.

FRA’s intent has been to develop a set of standards in the alternative to FRA’s structural and occupant protection requirements for railroad passenger equipment operating at speeds up to 125 mph that would provide the same level of safety and yet be more performance based and more technology and design neutral.  Consequently, FRA does anticipate that the alternative standards will provide a benefit to the industry to the extent regulated entities take advantage of the additional flexibility.

Observe that, after saying its regulations are important for the safety of the entire system, the FRA basically admits they’re bad for modern passenger rail, and proposes that railroads that want to do better seek waivers. At this stage, I doubt even the FRA believes that its trains are safer for occupants in crashes with freight trains than UIC-compliant EMUs with crumple zones. The FRA is simply justifying its own existence here, giving itself more jurisdiction than it really needs. Demanding that railroads paint an F on the front end of every locomotive (p. 40-41) is a joke; making agencies jump through hoops to obtain trains that don’t telescope in crashes is a danger to public safety.

If the FRA truly believed its rules were necessary for freight compatibility – or if it were simply captive to freight interests – it would promulgate a streamlined process by which passenger-primary lines can switch to UIC or Japanese rules. New operations could convert lines to those rules by consent of the host freight railroad; it would be a bonanza for the freight rail industry and a ripoff for passenger rail, but it would only impose costs on the public that the public could pay. It would not require a new waiver application from each operator, which costs more than what smaller operators can pay.

Note also that Amtrak, far from following the FRA’s request for waiver applications, only asked for one major change: it asked for performance-based track inspection regimes (p. 124), rather than ones based only on top speed as determined by track class. The FRA brushed it off, saying that maintenance requirements and derailment risk depend on speed. An agency that really thinks this, and doesn’t think axle load or center of gravity matters, should not be in charge of developing alternative standards.

The FRA is beyond hope. Its direct boss, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, should submit a list of about 10-20 existing regional and high-speed trains, from both Europe and Japan, and tell the FRA that it has until the end of the year to write rules under which all listed trains can run on US tracks unmodified except for such modular changes as loading gauge, or else it’ll be dissolved. Freight rail could regulate itself; the AAR won’t do a worse job than the FRA is currently doing. Passenger rail should just pick either the UIC or Japan and follow its rules consistently. Without this gun to the FRA’s proverbial head, nothing will change. It needs revolution, not gradual reform.


  1. Steve

    When you read the full quote, it also becomes apparent the FRA is shooting the messenger. Particularly when you realize the Strasburg Railroad is running fin-de-siècle mainline-standard American railroad equipment. Boxcar design has not changed at all in like 80 years–when a lot of SRC’s equipment was still in Class I revenue service–and yet the SRC’s equipment is now deemed “unsafe” according to FRA guidelines. WTF?

    I agree with you: the FRA needs a drastic overhaul, or dissolution. When even the AAR does a better regulatory job, you know something’s amiss.

  2. Alex

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding the tone of your final paragraph, but I’m looking for clarification so I can write to my congresspersons. Can LaHood dissolve the FRA or would congress need to do that?

    Sorry if I’m asking you to be my google but I thought you might know off-hand.

    • Alon Levy

      To be honest, I’m not sure. My understanding of executive power from the Bush era is that LaHood can gut the agency’s funding. A new head would have to be confirmed by the Senate, though.

      • Stephen Smith

        The FRA is in the Department of Transportation, which is an executive-branch agency – pre-Bush or post-Bush, they have been given administrative authority by Congress to regulate passenger rail safety. Ray LaHood is the boss of the people who write these regulations, and he can order them to do whatever he wants.

        At least, that’s my understanding of how it works.

  3. Paulus Magnus

    Got to love the FRA’s self-congratulatory refusal to take on Amtrak’s rather reasonable point about how Class 8 track is certified up to 160 miles per hour, but trains cannot run past 150 mph without extra FRA authority (and the suggestion that the 150mph should be raised to 160mph).

    The rationale behind the letter F is entirely absurd. Really, FRA, you don’t think people are capable of figuring out which end is which on locomotives with cabs facing only one direction?

    Why did only the AAR, UP, Amtrak, and SRC comment though?

  4. Nikko P

    Could you make an FRA Reform category to make it easier to follow all of the articles pertinent to this?

  5. Beta Magellan

    What’s really dispiriting is the fact that the tourist railway was the only one with objections to the continued weight requirements. Even if the FRA was reformed or dissolved I’m not convinced Amtrak (and some commuter railroads) would change their rolling stock preferences. Metra, to pick the agency I’m most familiar with, didn’t bother even inquiring about noncompliant EMUs )even though the Electric line doesn’t carry any freight), is proud that it’s still adhering to nineteenth-century operating principles, and has managed expectations well enough that most of its customers (pace Hyde Park and South Shore) are very happy with the limited service they get, so they don’t see any incentive to change. Given Amtrak’s similarly stuck-in-the-mud ways (not considering even compliant EMUs really stands out) and chorus of boosters, I’m not confident Amtrak would recognize its own best interest either.

    The FRA’s being horrible, but outside California there’s sadly not much demand for reform, either.

    • Steve S.

      Which is a major crux of the issue. In Philadelphia, SEPTA works likewise (even though most of our commuter rail lines have a very reasonable half-hourly off-peak operating schedule). There’s major debate about a new fare system here now, but SEPTA is trying to force a system that can work on buses and subways and trolleys and Regional Rail. And of course it’s not a proof-of-payment system, either. This continually seems to me really warped.

      I just think that American railroading is still stuck in the industry-is-going-obsolete thinking that perpetuated itself, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, despite the fact that global railroading has been undergoing a renaissance for quite some time.

      • Beta Magellan

        It’s a little worse than that, even—the idea isn’t so much that they’re stuck in the industry-is-going-obsolete mindset, but that many in Amtrak and the commuter railroads feel they wouldn’t have seen as much a decline if railroads got the same level of federal investment that roads did; ergo, the solution is to fund more railroad operations, and modernization doesn’t enter the picture. I think most people simply aren’t aware that the countries that supported their railroads after World War II also modernized their operating practices and regulations.

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  7. Wad

    Question to the Pedestrian Observations readers: Do you think any reforms that allow FRA to save face would be acceptable?

    • Beta Magellan

      When you work with people you have to deal with the fact that people are flawed, and I’m fine with the FRA trying to save face as long as any reforms were still substantive and didn’t place undue burden on bodies trying to run what’s currently considered non-compliant equipment.

  8. Zmapper

    The whole issue of the “F” on the front of the locomotive kinda reminds me of a preschool classroom. Everything is labeled, so on the door there is a sticker saying door, on the bookshelf another sticker, on pencils, etc.

    I sure hope that the railroad engineers, people who we trust with 1000+ tons of steel at 55mph, are competent to know the difference between the front of the train from the back. If not, I guess we might have to have the preschoolers run the trains. Chances are, they know which side of the train is the front and which is the back.

  9. Loren Petrich

    I agree that it’s a bureaucratic absurdity for locomotives with only one cab direction. However, some locomotives have cabs where one can see in both directions and drive in both directions, and some locomotives have a cab on each end. So which end is the “front” end is more ambiguous for them. You’d need some way of noting which end was found to have some broken coupler or defective brakes or whatever.

    How is this issue handled in Europe and elsewhere? Europe has numerous double-cab locos and trainsets. Light-rail vehicles are also usually double-cabbed, and I don’t recall seeing F’s on them.

    • anonymouse

      Articulated light rail vehicles usually have an A and a B unit, which are usually marked as such in the vehicle numbers on the inside and/or outside of the train. European practice seems to be to have a “1” and “2” stenciled on the respective ends of the locomotives. You’d think this is something that railroads could figure out on their own, but somebody does need to set some standards given that locomotives can end up very far from their home territory in the North American system. I would think that the AAR is a more appropriate body for setting these sorts of standards, though, and not the federal government in the form of the FRA.

    • MobilMan

      They have light signals. For example: three white lights in the front, two red ones in the back, which can be switched around.

      The “F” is cute.

      • aw

        Okay, so a mechanic gets a locomotive in the shop with a written report that the third wheel back from the F end on the right side is bad. Which axle does he change?

  10. Travis Mason-Bushman (@polarscribe)

    This hoo-ha about “silly government rule, everyone knows the front of a locomotive” is a classic case of historical myopia. It *might* be arguable today that the rule is no longer needed, but to use it as an example of “bad regulation” is simply wrongheaded.

    Remember, it has not always been the case that the “front” end of a locomotive is visually obvious. As recently as the 1990s, Norfolk Southern continued to order its locomotives set up for “long-hood forward” operation – that is, the operational “front” of the locomotive was the long, engine-block end that most people would visually think of as the “rear.” Many modern EMD SD-series and even some GE Dash-9 freight locomotives were set up that way.

    • lpetrich

      I’d recalled that, but I wasn’t sure of the details. Those are the locomotives I’d mentioned with cabs where one can see both ways and drive both ways.

  11. Michael John

    I’ve already started developing a list like you proposed.

    N700 Shinkansen, E5 Shinkansen, E6 Shinkansen, Alstom AGV, Siemens Velaro, TGV Duplex, Bombardier Zefiro, CRH380A. 12 more to go. Got any suggestions of what I might include on the list Alon?

    • Michael John

      Those train products, along with 12 others will form the basis for the rewritten rules. Any suggestions for the remaining 12? Would the Talent 1 and Talent 2 work? And btw, would it be possible to lower the weight of the ALP46 and 46A Locomotive by 10 short tons after the FRA rules are changed?

    • Alon Levy

      I wouldn’t use that many high-speed trains – I’d use more variety. For examples: N700, E5/6, Velaro, AGV; Coradia, FLIRT, Aventra, KISS, Talent; Pendolino; Talgo; E231 (modulo track gauge), KiHa 283 (same), GTW, MI 2N, Class 423.

    • Alon Levy

      Presumably, but any regulation that allows the Velaro will also allow the Zefiro and vice versa. They’re very similar, except the Zefiro is somewhat higher-powered and more aerodynamic.

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