Posts Tagged ‘Federal Railroad Administration’

FRA Pilot Program Tackles Trespassing

February 23, 2018

A pilot program to reduce trespassing on railroad property was announced this week by the Federal Railroad Administration.

In a notice published Thursday in the Federal Register, the FRA said the program seeks to help local law enforcement agencies evaluate local efforts to reduce trespassing on railroad rights-of-way. The total grant funds available are $150,000.

The FRA notice said that trespasser deaths average 500 per year, which exceeds the number of fatalities in automobiles at grade crossings.

The grant program stems from a trespassing prevention workshop the FRA conducted in August 2015.

Those receiving the grants would be expected to finish their projects in six months.

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Commuter Rail Agencies Can Seek Grants

February 22, 2018

The Federal Transit Administration said on Tuesday that commuter railroads may qualify for a portion of a recently announced grant program being sponsored by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The FTA said commuter rail agencies could use funding from the $73 million FRA program for positive train control, grade-crossing improvement and congestion mitigation projects.

Grants from the FRA program are being awarded on a competitive basis with Amtrak and freight railroads also eligible.

The funding was authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act and comes from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017.

The FRA said last week it is taking applications for the grant program, which is designed to improve railroad safety.

The Politics of PTC

February 21, 2018

Much has been said during the past two months about positive train control, but one of the more interesting comments came from Bennett Levin, the owner of a pair of E8A locomotives painted in the livery of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Levin told Trains magazine that he couldn’t afford the six-figure cost per unit to outfit his locomotives with a PTC device. Instead, he’ll probably sideline them.

Referring to a 2008 federal law that mandates PTC on many railroad routes, Levin described the requirement as “unfortunate and untimely” and suggested the requirement might not exist had a Metrolink commuter train engineer been doing his job instead of texting on his cell phone in the minutes before his train ran past a red signal and crashed head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in Los Angeles, an incident that left 25 dead.

Levin’s comments probably reflect the thinking of others in the railroad industry but it would not be good public relations, let alone good politics, for them to make similar comments.

The Association of American Railroads recently held a press briefing in which it fired an opening salvo on behalf of railroads likely to ask the Federal Railroad Administration for an extension of time to meet the PTC mandate.

The AAR expressed confidence that U.S. railroads will comply with the PTC deadline of
Dec. 31, but an AAR official later said it won’t be known until summer which railroads might seek an extension of time to install PTC.

Those requests for more time might not sit well with some at the FRA, the U.S. Department of Transportation or Congress.

The railroad trade group also was laying the groundwork for future fights concerning PTC by expressing concern that the FRA will micromanage PTC systems once they are in place and operating.

That concern is not without merit given the statements that have been coming virtually nonstop from the National Transportation Safety Board and Congress in the wake of three high profile accidents since December involving Amtrak trains that resulted in fatalities.

In two of those, the NTSB has said that had PTC been operating at the time, the accident likely would have been avoided.

Given what we know about the facts of those three Amtrak collisions, human error was at the root of all of them. The implication is that in at least two of those accidents technology could have overcome human foibles.

Perhaps, but the AAR also made the point during that news conference that PTC is not the magic bullet for rail safety that many are making it out to be. AAR Senior Vice President for Safety and Operations Mike Rush cited a 2005 study that found only 4 percent of mainline accidents could have been prevented by PTC.

Of course safety is paramount advocates will counter that one life lost is one too many.

It is hard to argue against that, yet far more people lose their lives in highway accidents than are killed in railroad accidents and we don’t see a movement to install some form of PTC on highways, the move toward self-driving vehicles notwithstanding.

Most highway fatalities don’t make the national news, only the local news and even then they might not get that much attention, let alone the type of lasting attention needed to prompt policy makers into action.

Society has become numbed by the high number of road fatalities, but expects the government to do something about accidents involving public transportation.

Make no mistake about it. Implementation of PTC is as much a political issue as it is a safety issue.

People who own railroad companies and, for that matter, airline companies, trucking companies, water transportation companies, bus companies, et. al, don’t like being told how to run their business. They don’t like being pushed around by government regulators and policy makers.

During the AAR news conference, Rush tried to make the case that PTC would likely have come about anyway without the government mandate.

He said the industry has spent decades researching PTC and conducted trials, one of which ended in failure.

But all of that got short circuited by the 2008 government mandate. Since then, the railroad industry has invested $10 billion in PTC and figures to spend millions if not billions more in maintaining it.

We’ll never know what the railroad industry would have come up with had it been left to its own devices in developing PTC. Nor will we ever know how many railroads would have installed PTC voluntarily on how much of their networks.

What we do know is that so long as public transportation conveyances continue to have accidents that leave people dead, there will continue to be government regulators and private citizen lobby groups trying to push the transportation industry around by telling them what to do to make travel safer.

NTSB Wants Restricted Speed for Trains Passing Through Territory in Which Signal System Has Been Suspended

February 17, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board has asked the Federal Railroad Administration to issue an emergency order directing that trains or locomotives move at restricted speed when passing through territory on which the signal system has been suspended and a switch has been reported realigned for a main track.

The recommendation came following a Feb. 4 head-on collision between Amtrak’s Silver Star and a parked CSX auto rack train, resulting in two Amtrak crew members being killed.

Preliminary NTSB findings are that a misaligned switch routed the passenger train into the path of the freight train, near Cayce, South Carolina.

CSX personnel had turned off the signal system on the territory where the crash occurred in order to install updated traffic control system components for the implementation of positive train control.

That meant dispatchers were using track warrants to govern train movements through the work territory.

The accident was similar to one that occurred on March 14, 2016 in Granger, Wyoming.

The NTSB said safe movement of trains in the event of a signal system suspension hinges upon proper switch alignment.

In the case of the accidents that occurred in Wyoming and South Carolina, the switch alignment relied on error-free manual work, which was not safeguarded by either technology or supervision.

“The installation of the life-saving positive train control technology on the CSX tracks is not the cause of the Cayce, South Carolina, train collision,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt in a statement. “While the collision remains under investigation, we know that signal suspensions are an unusual operating condition, used for signal maintenance, repair and installation that have the potential to increase the risk of train collisions. That risk was not mitigated in the Cayce collision. Our recommendation, if implemented, works to mitigate that increased risk.”

NTSB Wants Screening for Sleep Disorders

February 16, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board wants the Federal Railroad Administration to require railroads to medically screen “safety-sensitive” employees for sleep disorders.

The recommendation came in a special investigation report about two end-of-track collisions at commuter train stations in New Jersey and New York.

In a separate report, the NTSB said last week that both accidents, which involved commuter railroads in the New York City area, were caused by engineer fatigue resulting from undiagnosed and untreated obstructive sleep apnea.

In both accidents trains struck end-of-track bumping posts and continued into the waiting rooms of the stations.

In a news release, the MTSB said both incidents had “almost identical” probable causes and safety issues.

The NTSB also called for the use of technology such as positive train control in terminal stations and improving the effectiveness of system safety program plans to improve terminal operations.

The New Jersey accident, which occurred on Sept. 29, 2016, and involved a New Jersey Transit train in Hoboken, killed one person and injured 110.

The other accident involved the Long Island Rail Road and occurred on Jan. 4, 2017, at the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, New York. That incident injured 108.

FRA Announces Rail Grant Program

February 16, 2018

The Federal Railroad Administration is seeking applications for a $73 million grant program that is designed to strengthen intercity passenger rail, support capital projects, and boost safety initiatives that may include the implementation of positive train control, improved highway-rail grade crossings, and congestion mitigation.

The grant funding was authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act and funded through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017.

The funds are being channeled through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program and the Restoration and Enhancement Grants program.

In a news release, the FRA said at least 25 percent, or $17 million, of the improvement grant program’s funding will be used for rural projects such as highway-rail grade crossing improvement projects.

Another $10 million is available for capital projects such as rail line relocation and improvement or grade separation projects that contribute to the safe initiation or restoration of intercity passenger rail service.

A portion of funding from the improvement grant and restoration programs — $2.2 million set-aside for special transportation circumstances — is directed to grants for freight or intercity passenger rail capital projects in Alaska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Senate Confirms Batory as FRA Chief

February 14, 2018

The U.S. Senate voted Tuesday night to confirm Ronald Batory as the permanent administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Ronald Batory

Batory was approved on a voice vote after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer removed a hold on a Batory confirmation vote.

The action came in the wake of concerns about railroad safety following three Amtrak accidents that resulted in six fatalities.

Batory retired in March 2017 as president and chief operating officer of Conrail.

During his 46-year railroad industry career, he served as president of the Belt Railway of Chicago and held senior positions at Class I and regional railroads, including general manager in Chicago for Southern Pacific.

Schumer had placed the hold on Batory’s confirmation vote as part of a ploy to seek to force the Department of Transportation to release federal funds for the Gateway rail tunnels project under the Hudson River.

Another factor in lifting the hold was the recent resignation of acting FRA Administrator Heath Hall for moonlighting on a second job.

The Senate also confirmed by voice vote Raymond Martinez as administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and Adam Sullivan as the Department of Transportation’s assistant secretary of government affairs.

NKP 765 Schedule Release Expected Within Month

February 14, 2018

The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society expects to release within the next month its excursion schedule for this year involving Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765.

In an earlier report at the website of Trains magazine, the society had indicated that it was eyeing trips in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.

For the past several years the Berkshire-type locomotive has appeared on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in September.

In the meantime, the society is using the downtime between excursions to carry out a required boiler inspection.

Federal Railroad Administration rules require operating steam locomotives to undergo a boiler inspection and rebuild every 15 years or 1,472 service days.

Typically, that process is done at one time, but the FtWRHS won FRA approval to conduct it in stages over a two-year period so as to not miss an excursion season.

FtWRHS Vice President Kelly Lynch said the inspection and rebuild is expensive and time consuming, and the society devotes a portion of is excursion revenue toward that endeavor.

During the current winter, society personnel have been conducting an external and ultrasound boiler inspection of the boiler.

The ultrasound survey is about 99 percent done, Lynch said, and crews have found that 765’s boiler is in good condition with little or no deterioration of its steel.

FRA Concerned About Safety at CSX

February 13, 2018

A Trains magazine special report on safety and CSX found that train accident and personal injury rates increased by 12 percent and 13 percent last year.

It cited unknown sources as saying that the Federal Railroad Administration is becoming increasingly concerned with safety trends at CSX.

The report said the FRA fears the rapid pace of change at CSX within the past year has increased the risk of injury.

Those changes have included having three CEOs, changes in the ranks of front-line operating personnel, changes in operating rules, and the increased pressure to deliver on promises made to shareholders and shippers regarding improved financial and operational performance.

Among the rule changes that Trains said have drawn the attention of the FRA are increasing the restricted speed allowed in yards from 15 mph to 20 mph and allowing crews to get on and off moving equipment.

CSX has abolished road foremen of engine positions and given their duties to trainmasters.

Citing unnamed sources, the magazine report said this has reduced the effectiveness of the supervision of engineers and conductors.

The FRA is also concerned about whether CSX locomotive engineers have been trained properly to handle long trains, but CSX has resisted those concerns.

In 2013, the CSX train accident rate was the lowest among Class 1 railroads. But it increased by 73 percent between 2013 through 2017, while the employee personal injury frequency rate increased 38 percent during the same period.

In the first 11 months of 2017, CSX had the highest train accident rate among the big six Class 1 railroads.

CSX, though, sees things differently. In statement, it said that its FRA reportable personal injury frequency index of 1.19 for 2017 was 13 percent unfavorable versus the prior year as man-hours fell by 9 percent while overall injuries were up slightly

“While the FRA train accident frequency rate increased year-over-year, overall FRA train accidents remained flat and train miles decreased 12 percent year-over-year,” the carrier said in a statement.

CSX also said it remains committed to ongoing safety improvement with a focus on reducing injury severity and avoiding catastrophic events. It said it engages in continuous improvements in safety through training, innovation, and paying for technology that can help prevent accidents caused by human error.

The statement also said CSX works with the FRA to discuss any concerns or questions that regulators raise.

Trains said that most CSX accidents occur in yards, which the magazine said is true of all railroads, and involve trains moving at low speed. The accidents seldom result in significant injuries.

Yet the magazine’s sources said the FRA has received complaints from CSX employees saying they don’t have enough time to properly inspect trains.

Although CSX CEO E. Hunter Harrison culled the company’s workforce, his predecessor, Michael Ward, laid off nearly 1,000 management employees in February 2017.

Some industry observers told Trains that the rapid pace of change at CSX in the past year may have affected safety.

“How do you maintain a safety culture when you are making some really radical changes to the operation in a short amount of time,” said Allan Rutter, a former FRA administrator who now is division head of freight and investment analysis at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in Dallas.

Former FRA administrator and Amtrak CEO, Joseph Boardman told Trains that it’s dangerous for any railroad to undergo as much change as CSX has in such a short period of time.

“Safety culture is a very difficult thing,” Boardman said. “You have to be consistent, you have to keep moving forward.”

Steven Ditmeyer, a former FRA official, said the increased accident rates are significant, saying that it appears likely that CSX workers didn’t follow rules and procedures to ensure that a switch was properly lined before the Amtrak’s Silver Star crashed into a parked CSX auto rack train.

“I view it as a legacy of Hunter Harrison,” he said.

Nonetheless, when Harrison was CEO at Canadian Pacific it had an industry-best train accident rate, while personal injuries rose slightly, by 6 percent. That was, however, still at the low end of the Class I systems.

Ditmeyer said that at CSX “Harrison was trying to do a much more rapid change on a much more complex network.”

Acting FRA Head Resigns Post

February 13, 2018

The acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration has resigned following allegations that he was moonlighting as a public relations consultant.

Heath Hall stepped down on Sunday from his position, which did not require Senate confirmation.

Hall was appointed acting FRA head after the Trump admistration’s pick for the permanent FRA chief post was held up in the Senate.

Trump has nominated  former Conrail executive Ron Batory, but Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Corey Booker of New Jersey have placed a hold on the nomination in an effort to use it to pressure the administration into releasing federal funding for the proposed Gateway rail tunnel project between New York and New Jersey.

Hall had been reported to have taken a leave of absence from the FRA, citing unidentified family issues, but reports have surfaced saying that twice Hall appeared in Mississippi as a spokesman for the Madison County sheriff.

Hall had said on a federal ethics form that his public relations work would remain dormant while he worked at DOT.

However, information has surfaced that Hall received compensation for public relations efforts between July and December last year.

“We were unaware of the information that is being reported but those allegations, if they are true, are troubling,” DOT spokeswoman Marianne McInerney said in a statement. “Heath Hall has resigned his position at the Department effective immediately.”

Railway Age reported that Batory has been working as an aide to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and is to offer his advice when when the FRA’s new interim acting administrator, General Counsel Juan D. Reyes III, testifies on positive train control implementation on Feb. 15 before the House Rail Subcommittee.

The magazine said that Trump could name Batory as deputy administrator, a post that does not need Senate confirmation but carries less prestige and offers less money

However, Batory would be able to oversee the FRA while awaiting Senate confirmation.

The Senate could also invoke cloture, which would override the hold that Schumer and Booker have on the nomination.

However, that usually requires 60 votes and Republicans cannot muster that within their own membership ranks. Under certain circumstances, cloture can be invoked with 51 votes.

A third option would be for Trump to name Batory as FRA head as a recess appointment in late February when Congress is away on break. That would make Batory head of the FRA through the end of 2019.