Oh, to be compliant


It may simply be a sign of getting old, I suppose. One believes he knows and understands certain concepts, only to discover that some of the rules have changed whilst he slept (metaphorically, of course).

In the 45 years that the F.R.A. has been in existence (yes...that's forty five years!), they've been fairly straightforward concerning the issue of equipment safety compliance. In fact, from my perspective, it's always seemed to be the epitome of simplicity: either a locomotive or piece of rolling stock was F.R.A. compliant (i.e., suitable for use on general system trackage) or it wasn't. 49 C.F.R. Part 238 may not make for great bedtime reading, but it leaves little room for quibbling.

Over here are the passenger cars that may run along side double stack container trains and high cube box cars. They are compliant. Over there are the various rail-based transit vehicles: L.R.V.s, streetcars and certain D.M.U.s (mostly of European design), which canNOT be used on general system trackage - at least without temporal separation, operational waivers and the like. They are NON-compliant.

To use a Biblical analogy, we're separating the sheep from the goats.

Ah, but nothing can be left alone, it seems - especially when politicians and attorneys are present. [At least there are many competent Professional Engineers at the F.R.A. to help keep things on an even keel.]

Surely, the need to readdress the F.R.A.'s approach to safety has often been discussed. While other modes (and most other continent's railway systems) are content to design their safety practices around the concept of incident avoidance, our own F.R.A. still dwells on incident survivability. The presumption is that derailments are inevitable and crashes unavoidable; therefore, in response, weight is added to the system by way of heftier rolling stock. This leads to train sets like Amtrak's Acela: a sort of Shinkansen on steroids.

Far be it from me to question what might happen if an Acela consist became entangled with a conventional E.M.U.-equipped train during a cornfield meet.

An aside: In this context, it's sort of profound to consider railroad/highway grade crossings and the weight differentials there. After all, Operation Lifesaver has oft' compared the results of a train/motor vehicle collision to an automobile running over a Dr Pepper can.

[Off the property, there are also plenty of sports cars sharing roadways with tractor/trailer rigs.]

No matter. This is all being driven by Washington and its desire to expedite the re-creation of railway passenger services on a strict budget.

To quote from the F.R.A.'s own work, "the proliferation of planned passenger rail systems around the country" is going to cause "more States and operating authorities...to use passenger equipment designed to alternative standards, which have been proven in foreign operating conditions but not under the more severe conditions encountered in the United States."

Now, once upon a time, "the proliferation of...passenger rail systems around the country" was taken in stride.

Interurban railways interchanged traffic with steam roads. Motors would pick up and deliver box cars and reefers at junctions for local, on line customers, sharing the route with interurbans which, in turn, safely carried passengers to and from city, hamlet and farm. When in town, those same interurban cars would often freely use trackage of local street railway lines - which fielded much smaller (though similar) equipment. In fact, many major cities (including Dallas) had interurban terminals which were owned and operated by the streetcar company.

All of this sharing and commingling with nary a complaint and rarely a fatality.

Oh, well. That was then, this is now, and Alternative Compliance is the name of the game.

Back here in (and near) Big D, there are two regional passenger services which are being championed by Dallas Area Rapid Transit, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, and the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Both will use segments of the former Cotton Belt main heading east/northeast out of Fort Worth (owned by DART between Tower 60 [North Fort Worth] and Wylie).

DART has committed itself (and anyone else wanting to play) to use an as yet unavailable type of passenger equipment, which will combine some of the least desirable characteristics of light rail technology (size, comfort and cost among them) with some of the least desirable characteristics of commuter train technology (weight, flexibility and motive power among them). Their stated wish is to develop, as part of the combined project, an F.R.A.-compliant hybrid, to be called the "North Texas Regional Rail Vehicle" (a.k.a. "L.R.N.T." or "Light Rail New Technology").

To me, the main problem is pretty obvious: what DART is publicly searching for does not now - and I'm willing to bet will never - exist: a one-size-fits-all, go-anywhere/do-anything self-propelled railroad passenger vehicle, able to "cross all track barriers: commuter, freight, and light-rail" (according to one of the local documents).

What DART will probably end up with is a new vehicle which, by definition, will be far more costly to build and far less comfortable to ride than its conventional commuter train counterparts, unsuited for long trips (like Fort Worth to Plano) and, due to its unique nature, difficult and expensive to maintain.

Worst of all? In the process of reinventing the wheel, the feds, along with several public agencies (including the three I mentioned), are now inadvertently creating a completely new sphere of operations: a railway service under the jurisdiction of the F.R.A. which, due to its equipment, will remain forever incompatable with most general system traffic, yet will never be allowed to use F.T.A.-governed transit lines. It's not compliant, yet it's not completely NON-compliant. It exists in some sort of Neverland. Unlike Peter Pan, though, it is all too real.

For a long time, I've looked at proposals like this from both a passenger's and railroader's perspective. In doing so, I have completely lost track of reality! You see, many of these projects exist as political animals, designed to generate jobs and score points. If they actually end up serving the train riding public, so much the better; but, that's not what they're ultimately designed to do. 

DART's Public-Private Partnership agreement for the Cotton Belt stipulates the service should maintain "the same type of vehicle and operating characteristics on the entire corridor." That being the case, DART can (and probably will) force all DART-owned segments of the Cotton Belt to adopt the L.R.N.T. vehicle (however that ends up being defined) - even though DART has previously stated that the operational "conditions [which caused the need for their L.R.N.T. vehicle in first place] are currently specific only to the north Dallas section of the corridor between Addison and the Red Line."

A major driving force behind the development of a North Texas Regional Rail Vehicle is the prospect that the builder of the winning design will set up a manufacturing plant in this area, with the transit agencies and the Regional Transportation Council (a division of our local COG) dutifully insisting that all future lines use the new product. [Anyone who has seen a real commuter railroad at work, like Metro North or Metra or Caltrain - FORGET about it!] We should just remain thankful the Trinity Railway Express is already in operation.

Politics may play a major role - perhaps the major role - in today's passenger transport world, but why must its involvement so often result in an inferior product?

Maybe I'll just go back to sleep.



  • Larry,

    Thanks for the thoughtful replies.  I want to assure you that when it comes to those who rely on pension type entitlements, I follow the mantra of Barry Goldwater.  We must keep promises to those to whom they were made.  (Yeah, that's Goldwater.)  But when it comes to my future, why can't we enact reforms?  

    Oddly, Railroad Retirement got some limited reform when the 60/30 provision passed that will help it remain sustainable.  It no longer invests all of its assets in Treasury Notes, yet you and countless others are still able to get the benefits you were promised.  When it comes to Medicare, giving recipients more control and enacting market based reforms like Medicare Advantage is paramount.  

    Reforms must be enacted for future recipients and must not negatively affect any current or soon-to-be recipients who have come to rely on these programs.  

    Addressing another thing you bring up is that cutting other parts of government wouldn't yield measurable savings, but that argument just doesn't wash with me.  Politicians always talk about waste, fraud, and abuse and that just makes me cringe.  There will always be those things, and we should work to correct them, but there is never the political will to do so.  For all of these other items, let's say we can only get measurable savings of $250B annually, roughly 6-7% of the current annual budget.  That's 2.5 TRILLION dollars over ten years, and that does make a difference.  Further, there are basic moral and constitutional questions that need to be addressed.  Is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's annual $455M subsidy justifiable with all of the media, including "educational and cultural" programming available today?  That's nearly a third of Amtrak's subsidy - and there is a lot more constitutional justification for that than for CPB.

    This discussion could go on an on, but we can cut it here.

    On another note, I, too, am surprised at the lack of response on you blog post.



  • In fairness to railroads and railroaders, Mike, let's remember that railroads and their employees pay somewhat more for RRB benefits than do Social Security recipients during their working lives.  We get a bit more and we pay more for it.  Seems fair to me.

    I have chosen to rely on traditional Medicare and have declined to join a Medicare Advantage plan.  I like choosing my own doctor, not requiring a referral to specialists, and most of all, not having to have treatment and doctor choice approved by an insurance company bureaucrat who is driven by the cmpany's profit goals far more than by my health issues.

    I think I've made it clear that I am an apostate Republican, a one-time political in the Nixon Administration, who, over the years, concluded that GOP tenets and my beliefs are inconsistent with each other.  I excuse myself by saying I didn't leave the party, it left me.  Just the concept of social conservatism was anathema when I chose to be a Republican.  Clearly, by adopting litmus tests, the party did the changing, not this one-time member.  My arguments about waste may not "wash" with you, Mike, but take a look at the budget when it comes out in the next couple of weeks.  You'll find that the administrative costs of government are quite small in the context of overall spending.  It is the billions of program dollars that are spent for highways, Amtrak and other things in addition to Medicare, Social Security and defense.  You brought up public broadcasting.  I am a regular contributor to both public radio and television.  If the annual subsidy is withdrawn, I'm confident those who believe in public broadcasting will make up the difference.  Besides, once public support is removed, the public will have no right to object to anything that is aired on public radio or TV stations.  As I said, if you were to eliminate virtually all of the people involved, two things would or would not happen.  The government would collapse for lack of people to keep it functioning; and the savings would not reduce the national debt by so much as a dollar - because it would not cause the budget to move from deficit to surplus.  Just take at look at 2000.  GWB inherited a budget surplus from Billy C. and a national debt tht was declining.  Then we got tax cuts that did not engender new revenue (my grade school math teacher could have explained that to those know-it-alls), we got profligate spending from the very Republicans who now are asking us to trust them once again and pledging that this time they understand (if you believe that, you're far more forgiving than I am), and two wars for which we made no attempt to pay, the first time in U.S. history that we did not pay partially for our wars, leaving them to our grandchildren to grapple with.  

    My primary reason for continuing this thread is not so much to persuade you, but to get thinking individuals to realize that it is not easy to fund a multi-trillion dollar government.  If it were easy, it would have been done by now.  Simplistic sloganeering and easy "solutions" seldom are either simple or easy.

  • LK>"Thanks, anmccaff, for your comment.  Some years ago - like 30 or so - the late A. Scheffer Lang"

    Now, there's a name to conjure by.  If anyone had listened seriously to his stuff about the "flattening" of the economic landscape in the NE we might not have gotten the Rust Belt continuing to bleed so long.

    LK>"...managed a study of the effect of imposing segment tolls on the inland waterways.  These would cover the Upper Mississippi, Lower Mississippi, Ohio system, Missouri, Arkansas-Verdigris, Tennessee-Tombigbee, Black-Warrier.  The study showed that with the exception of the Lower Mississippi and Ohio, none of the other waterways had enough traffic to generate sufficient tolls to cover their maintenance burden.  All of the other waterway segments would be closed.  Obviously, the study never went anywhere."

    Well, in fairness to the Corps, and others, in 1980 we were seing the final contraction of the excess  capacity in the rail system, along with a percieved threat in Central America, which made the Tenn-Tom attractive for barge movement of military equipment in case of mobilization.  You also have a lot of mixed-use justification of several waterway projects, and exactly how you assign the costs - to flood prevention, to water supply, and so on, has some room for honest debate.

    It's also a great way to lay a smokescreen, of course.  Each group likes to assign only the incremental cost of their objectives and assume that the other players should be paying the rest; no one likes to ask why the feds should be paying for local benefit.

    As you are fond of correctly pointing, the US's transportation policy is mostly by default, and too much is done simply because it was done.  Lot of good examples of that on the water.

  • The late John Ingram, former FRA Administrator, CEO of the Rock Island, and developer of the Big John grain rates, referred, I think accurately, to the Tenn-Tom as "double-tracking" the Mississippi.  He was right.  That waterway never has come close to meeting traffic projections.  But it is, I hear, an excellent fishing hole for those fortunate enough to be able to wet a line in the waterway.  It never was anything other than the kind of pork that members of Congress today are condemning.  I'll believe their sincerity when the first Representative takes the floor to condemn a project in his/her own district.  I think you'll find that the locks and dams along the inland waterways were justified and funded primarily as navigtional aids.  They provided a bit of flood control, but not much.  Finally, for now, remember that while barge operators today pay something in the 15% to 25% range as their share of these facilities, they demanded that they get to use locks and dams and that the Corps of Engineers maintain facilities for no charge at all.  That give me the opportunity once again to observe that there are a lot of socialists out there wearing capitalist suits.  Also, remember that if something is free, we want a whole lot more of it.

  • A lot of the flood control on the Cumberland and Tennessee was done, in effect, through permanent flooding.  The dams were arranged to keep most of the bottom land under, which finally broke the cycle of flood-work the land from a distance-move back onto the floodplain again-flood, with local, state, or federal disaster relief taken as a given.

  • Who did railroad saftey before the FRA?

  • The Interstate Commerce Commission.  I thought you knew everything there is to know about railroads and transportation?

  • This is an old thread, but you have raised some interesting points, Garl.  It's not my area of expertise, so I don't have anything valid to contribute to the issue of safety compliance.  Out here in Denver, there was a coal train derailment along a stretch of track south of downtown and parallel to Santa Fe Blvd.  A fair amount of coal was dumped along the right-of-way.  This stretch is where the Regional Transportatin District has a parallel track used exclusively by its Light Rail operation, but on r-o-w leased from the railroads (BNSF and UP jointly operate on the freight track.  Even separating the freight and passenger operation didn't prevent the LRT from running into the spilled coal and derailing.  Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.

  • GL>"Interurban railways interchanged traffic with steam roads. Motors would pick up and deliver box cars and reefers at junctions for local, on line customers, sharing the route with interurbans which, in turn, safely carried passengers to and from city, hamlet and farm. When in town, those same interurban cars would often freely use trackage of local street railway lines - which fielded much smaller (though similar) equipment. In fact, many major cities (including Dallas) had interurban terminals which were owned and operated by the streetcar company.

    All of this sharing and commingling with nary a complaint and rarely a fatality."

    I hate to raise the dead part of the thread, but it's worth remembering that this vision of inter-cooperation of steam, interurban, and street railway only happened at some times and in some places, in others they fought each other, or were required by regulation to cooperate, or were required by regulation -not- to cooperate.

    It's also worth remembering that the best utilization of track meant night freight movement on the street railways, and abutting property owners often fought that into extinction.