Although there are a handful of trolls who believe otherwise, the consensus opinion that the regulatory body of the Federal Railroad Administration is largely, if not wholly, broken and that, as such, a radical reformation of the body--such as from a regulatory body to a booster body, or perhaps a planning body--if not its outright elimination, is needed. This opinion is shared among people with substantive transportation expertise, from hobbyists and prospective entrants (e.g. moi) into the field, to practitioners, and on up to the very freight railroads the current FRA regulations are most forgiving to. The FRA question of a decade ago may have been does it work?, but now that the answer no, it does not has been widely agreed, the question has to become how to change it?, or, more brusquely, how to fix it?
The first problem in this question is how many people even know it is a problem, outside of the community that has to deal with it regularly? Not many. The FRA is one of several sub-silos in the highly disciplinary decadent U.S. Department of Transportation; it reports to the Secretary of Transportation and displays little cross-departmental communication with its kin, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)*. As such, it is part of the Cabinet and thus the Presidency. But compared to the EPA, which is a huge fish, and constantly bounding across the line of what constitutes 'good' and 'bad' regulation, it is insignificant unto nothing. Very few people would even realize that stripping the FRA of its regulatory power would have done something. But since the body politic the FRA puts into practice is, compared to peer agencies, such as the relevant agency in Australia (whatever it is), or the international standard of the UIC, which governs everything from the light, speedy trains of Western Europe and Japan to the massive and heavy trains of Russia and China, archaic at best and plain old atavistic at worst, the FRA is a major impediment to badly-needed change in American railroads--both in the arenas of passenger and freight.
Thus the first issue we have to deal with is outreach. And not just one type of outreach. The FRA is so broken for so many reasons--and appears to exist now merely to perpetuate itself rather than being in thrall to a corporate or labor interest--that a case for why the FRA should be stripped of its regulatory power, if not outright done away with can most likely be made to cater to every political ideology imaginable. Very few regulatory agencies get to be such total failures as to manage that. Let us now concentrate on some of the more general ones.
For Republicans. The vast majority of modern rail technology is developed overseas, in UIC-compliant situations. If you want to privatize passenger rail service, you'll need to ensure that the American rail regulatory body is equipped to handle the maximal amount of rail technologies current available. As it stands, the FRA's sacred cows guarantee it can only handle a relatively minimal amount, and little--if not none--of which can be readily used for profitable private passenger rail. To pursue a viable privatization agenda, thus, the regulatory power of the FRA must be stripped. (This should be particularly effective on Mica.)
For Democrats. Regulation needs to be revisited from time to time to test its effectiveness. Ineffective regulation is detrimental to the needs of a country as a whole (just as a lack of regulation in situations where safety is legitimately needed). By this standard, our railroad safety regulation is outdated and ineffective. The U.S. has the worst--by a long shot--per capita railroad crash fatality rate in the developed world, despite a regulatory agenda supposedly engineered to ensure safety. Furthermore, the entire field of railroad technology in the U.S. is relatively outdated and falling behind, with offerings by Bombardier, Alstom, Siemens, and Kawasaki outstripping what even the GE GEVO is capable of, much less EMD. Passenger rail technology, as an industry in the U.S., is nonexistent: we have to import all real expertise in the field. It would appear that, in the direction the FRA is currently heading, passenger rail safety will be attained only by virtue of its nonexistence. Do we want that? Elimination of passenger rail would force all intercity transportation onto highways and through airports, which are already strained enough as it is. By contrast, the haunting ruins of an era when rail was the normative mode of intercity transportation lie all around us. Shuttered stations, grand stations ill used. Given where we expect our intercity transportation to go in the next few years, this is an entire infrastructure lay slack that can be picked up again--but again--our regulatory body ensures that this infrastructure lays slack, by forcing us to use obsolescent technology which has not been able to be profitably provided native to the U.S. for over a generation--since the end of the Budd Company. The only way to be able to pick up this slack, and bring fallow infrastructure back to active use--is to eliminate the bad regulation forcing its slackness. Worse, the FRA has gone rogue, refusing to listen or study any regulatory solutions used anywhere else in the world. Why should we trust a rogue organization with vital safety regulation? Bring the FRA under heel, strip it of its current policy, and impose a UIC-compliant regulatory standard so that we can have equipment as up-to-date and as safe as the rest of the developed world enjoys.
This two cases are fundamentally different, and resonate different strands, but outreach campaigns to both parties would ideally allow the vast majority--if not entirety--of the House and Senate transportation committees to come to common conclusion and common cause--namely, the stripping of FRA regulatory powers and their replacement with UIC-compliant regulation.
The question now becomes how to make the most powerful special interest impacted by the FRA--the Association of American Railroads, or AAR--interested in implementing UIC regulation; the AAR's members (that is, the major American Class I and Class II freight railroads) would need to restructure equipment standards for this new regulation--although, as the Russian and Chinese examples show, UIC regulations do also cover heavier-standard networks in addition to lighter ones. The Australian mean as an implementation midphase may be the best way to go about things.
*Not that the FRA has that much reason to talk to the FHWA. But the FTA, especially, whose purview overlaps with the two others, should be the "glue" binding all three. That they don't is clear evidence of a highly disciplinary decadent corporate culture.