Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fixing the FRA

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.


  1. Even in Europe, the UIC rules cover heavier things than the normal European locos. Although the normal Sprinter or TRAXX or Prima weighs about 90 metric tons, there are some locos in Europe that weigh 120 tons or even slightly more. One freight loco in Japan weighs more than 130 tons. Those locos have six axles (eight in Japan) in order to limit axle loads, but their gross weight isn't much less than that of any GE or EMD product.

    The Class I freights can and should stick to GE and EMD locos and equivalent imports, which are good at the kind of freight haulage the US does (i.e. low-cost, low-speed). They can safely coexist with passenger trains that weigh not much more than modern streetcars.

  2. Agreed. In fact, this is why I want to keep stressing that China and Japan are UIC nations, even though they run heavier bulk freight, more akin to the U.S.'s style, the bulk of both countries' equipment is analogous to equipment used throughout the NAFTA bloc.

    Were the U.S. a fully UIC-compliant nation, GE and EMD would also potentially be more successful exporting their product than they are now, too.

  3. Japan and China aren't really UIC nations. Japan's rail regulations are very different - for example, it has laxer buff strength rules than Europe (Europe requires 150 tons in general and 200 for HSR, while Japan requires 100; the US requires 363 under Tier I), as a result of which its trains are lighter.

    China is a very good example of how to mix high-density passenger rail with high-density freight rail on the same network. As far as I can glean from news reports, CRH is substantially safer than American rails. I don't think I have enough information about the rest of China's network, though. The crashes reported on Wikipedia point to even better safety than Japan, but it's likely very underreported; for one, if you focus only on CRH, China's rate becomes much worse, which is the opposite of the situation observed in Japan (zero Shinkansen deaths) and Europe (Eschede debatable, but even counting it in HSR has a better record than non-HSR, EU-wide).

  4. Remember your difference between technicals and politicals? Well, as technicals we know that there is a technical difference between what is done within different UIC member nations, but since the crux of the argument we're trying to advance is that we need international interoperability, we can safely set aside case-by-case operating differences and focus international commonalities in order to advance a political cause. I don't think the people who would have to fix the FRA know (or care) about the differences between European, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Australian (etc.) equipment...but what they need to know is that these nations permit heavy freight and light passenger trains to operate side-by-side, and much more safely than we have, which tells us that it's not anything unique to us but rather our regulations impinging on our safety.

    The arguments we use, in other words, are arguments we need to select carefully. We only need "Rail Safety 101, or, Why the U.S. System is Hopelessly Broken" (tailored, of course, to suit ideological agenda), in other words, not the masters-level material.

  5. The elephant in the room that you acknowledge but don't quite address (in this post anyway) is the freight railroads.

    Your post mentions offhand that even the freight railroads think that the FRA is broken. But why do they think this? What part of FRA regulation do they take issue with? How would adopting UIC standards be of benefit to them? In my observation, freight railroads are extremely resistant to change of any kind whatsoever, often even in cases where they would recieve a net benefit out of the change. The reason is, they know they can (and do) run profitably under the current environment and change introduces uncertainty which has the potential to upset their shareholders. Massive regulatory overhaul certainly falls into the category of change.

    I also get the feeling that there is a certain set of people, many of whom are in power, in the US who would oppose moving towards international standards simply because they are international standards ("We're the US of A, why should we be beholden to anybody else's standards?")

    As far as crash safety is concerned, the situation is easily answered: Are you safer in a crash in a 5000 pound behemoth from 1960 (buff strength) or a 2500 pound vehicle from 2012 with crumple zones?

  6. Alon Levy, on his blog Pedestrian Observations, has mentioned that the freight railroads are specifically upset about the "Paint an F for Forward on engines" rule. Since you can tell with some 90% of engines in use in America--more when considering just the freight railroads--which direction the front is just by looking at the bloody thing and the remainder is bidirectional equipment (think EMUs and AEM7s) there is no good reason to. Over the summer the UP especially pushed back against this regulation. I also get the feeling that if FRA regulation weren't so restrictive the big freight railroads wouldn't be adverse to purchasing some equipment abroad, particularly for time-sensitive intermodal runs.

    Another issue, however, is that reformation of rail regulation to meet UIC standards is desired by transit advocates precisely because it allows greater flexibility in bringing passenger trains back to the rails. The freight railroads are risk-adverse and don't want to share their tracks with anyone else. So while both parties agree that the current regulatory structure is broken, how can we compromise between the two? Must excess concrete be used?

    From a recent Systemic Failure post detailing the consultant team who's in charge of writing the "new" Tier II standards (which don't go anywhere near far enough to ensure international interoperability) was, in his words, "Amtrak and a bunch of unions". It's entirely probable that the archaic (if not atavistic) regulation we have in place is due in part to the unions' desire to perpetuate archaic operating practices--why? Because they require more manpower, of course! More "good" union jobs! A UIC switch would implement more modern operating practices--which, in turn, require far less manpower (think about conductor fare collection v. the honors system).

    Also, as to your final comment, I would feel safer in the latter car. For sure.

  7. Elaborating on my previous comment viz. Systemic Failure, Stephen Smith suggests, in the context of a discussion on the cost of private subway construction, that one of the largest costs inflators of American public infrastructure construction is "union work rule-related overstaffing". This, to me, suggests the real impetus of a lot of ridiculous FRA requirements (particularly since the unions are the dominant special interests that get to make these rules): they institutionalize this overstaffing, which in turn sponges up costs like nobody's business.

  8. For what it's worth, I'm not sure there's a Australian equivalent of the FRA, with most of the regulation of railroads (as well as planning and, until recently, operation) done by the states. Which goes a long way toward explaining the lack of standardization on even such basic things as track gauge. But it seems like most of the state regulations are generally amenable to things like importing rolling stock and locomotives from Europe, and 100 mph DMU trains are pretty common there too.

  9. What about the interstate standard-gauge network, then? Since Australian states have more power than American states, I can see a good deal of accuracy in what you say, but remember: Australia mixes heavy freight trains, light freight trains, light passenger trains, and land cruises (e.g. Indian Pacific, Ghan on its network(s). The dominant freight locomotives Down Under are in fact EMD and GE prime movers--American-style heavy freight diesels--in a locally-built carbody shell.

    Some time ago I posted a photo of a Transperth train (Cape gauge) and the Indian Pacific side-by-side. The Indian Pacific weighs about as much, in unit costs, as an Amtrak train e.g. the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, or Crescent Limited: the NR locos are weighty and powerful, like the Geneses that are the the railroad's workhorses, and the heritage coaches would be about the same weight as the older Amfleet or Horizon Fleet (heritage). The Transperth train is, of course, lighter.

    The Transperth situation basically amounts to Caltrain and BART sharing tracks in California...something the U.S.'s regulatory situation currently does not allow. In fact, American mainline railroad regulations do not allow most (not quite all) industry-standard passenger-rail practices elsewhere, and then justified by an appeal to American-centrism ("we do things differently here"--but "differently" definitely =/= "better")...which is why, from a passenger-rail advocate's perspective, it's the FRA regulations that are in the way.