, , ,

How Politics Has Taken Priority Over Safety

By M.E. Singer

Apparently, the Amtrak wrecks in Washington last summer and in December, the incursion at the grade crossing in West Virginia in January; and the wreck in South Carolina this month, failed to arouse a normally curious and investigative east coast media to wonder where the FRA was in all of this. How is it that everybody today looks like a deer in the headlights to find out the FRA was unmanned during this crucial period? Unmanned, I say, because the acting administrator, Health Hall, had no industry experience whatsoever. We can only be grateful that we were saved by the old mantra, “greed is dependable,” as he was finally caught violating federal ethics by moonlighting in his prior PR job back in Mississippi.

Although we might contend of industry relationships being too cozy, at least the new Secretary of Health came out of the pharmaceutical industry; the new head of the FAA was a pilot and lobbyist for U.S. legacy carriers. Despite the critical issues currently begging for attention and resolution in railroading, how was the FRA allowed to become an acknowledged parking zone for “friends and family?”

As I wrote in Politico which broke this story on 10 February:

“The real issue here that should formulate concern is what were the credentials of Mr. Hall that enabled him to become even the acting head of the FRA? It appears from reports in the media that he was nothing more than a PR flack.

If so, this should be troubling for the public to notice how the important FRA has apparently become a place to park politically appointed folks with no relevant experience in railroading. Prior to Hall, we were given Sarah Feinberg from the Obama Administration, whose qualifications were as Chief of Staff but for 18 months to the Secretary of Transportation Foxx. In the Bush 43 administration, the FRA was run by Joe Boardman, who came from the bus world.

What brings this issue to light now is the significance of this administration appointing Mr. Batory, a very experienced railroader, to run the FRA.

However, despite the urgent need to have his expertise direct the railroads and safety issues, his posting has been pocketed for months by the senators from New Jersey and New York (two who are intending to run for president), because they demand the federal treasury to pay 100% of the Gateway Project to replace the Hudson River tunnels connecting NJ to NY. They have elected to neglect the 50% federal offer remaining on the table for what is widely viewed as a regional commuter issue long ignored by both of these states.”

In retrospect, were we incorrect to cheer on Senator Feinstein’s (D-CA) determination last year to secure USDOT approval for funding the $647M electrification of the Caltrain Peninsula commuter line by threatening to block all USDOT appointments? Yes, it worked, but at what cost to see it now emulated to the detriment of the railroad industry? Apparently, even after these Amtrak wrecks, Senator Schumer (D-NY) has no remorse for blocking Batory’s ascension to the FRA; in fact, he ignores the issue altogether.

Although Heath has now left by exiting the FRA “stage right,” and the FRA counsel has moved in to keep the seat warm, we cannot tolerate regional politics to play out as fiefdoms in the Senate, to the neglect of the larger national need.  In respect to Mr. Batory’s forty years of railroad experienced, with his last position as President/Chief Operating Officer of Conrail, Inc., he most certainly could be trusted to get his hands around the salient industry issues of the day, including:

Safety-PTC: Despite the political finesse of Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, which previously secured for her an eight year run as Secretary of Labor under Bush 43, she has shown little appetite or interest in bringing together the railroad industry and Congress. Perhaps an FRA administrator of Mr. Batory’s stature can secure the requisite funding from Congress for the railroads, coupled with an increase from their own Capex, to finish the long delayed PTC program? It certainly would not hurt for Mr. Batory to take the position to educate Congress what they refused before to acknowledge: PTC was a nascent product in 2008; Congress failed to secure FCC cooperation to secure the requisite band widths; the extreme cost just of testing PTC; the difficulty in securing inter-operable PTC across numerous rail lines; and oh by the way, how the air traffic control system was fully financed by Congress-to install and maintain.

Safety-Passenger Train Consists: What stands out from the recent “Silver Star” wreck is the crumbled coach behind the destroyed diesel unit. Although I remember a regulation promulgated decades ago to prevent any passenger or crew car to be coupled directly behind the diesel units, whether en force now or not, Mr. Batory needs to push out immediate FRA regs to change the consist of the single level long distance trains (“Lake Shore Limited,” “Silver Meteor,” “Silver Star,” and “The Crescent”) to stop running the baggage car on the rear for the convenience of Amtrak switching. Just like with the Superliner consists, the baggage car should be coupled directly behind the power.

Safety-Amtrak T&E Districts: It is timely-and relevant-and in parallel to testing for sleep apnea, for Mr. Batory to review the current Amtrak T&E districts to analyze if today they are too long in length and time on the road, given the constant challenge of the operating environment, e.g., signals, communications, grade crossings, trespassers. As part of this review, it is also time to determine if a two man crew of engineers in the cab would be beneficial, just as airlines deploy two pilots for the same obvious reasons.

Equipment-Standard Intercity Bi-Level Passenger Car: The failure in selecting Sumitomo/Nippon Sharyo to build the proposed intercity bi-level equipment has to be the FRA’s greatest FUBAR. Why was it never properly monitored and the contract pulled earlier? I agree with Noel Braymer’s point that the only firm competently still producing bi-levels is the Bombardier plant in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. We will probably never learn why this was not the first selection, but as Noel pointed out, those bi-levels are still being manufactured for Toronto’s GO Transit, can be built as intercity cars, and importantly, would be inter-operable with the new single level Siemens cars. Ideally, this should be examined as a priority by Mr. Batory, as neither the California JPAs or Amtrak’s minuscule Midwest corridors can ramp-up increased frequencies without more capacity.

Infrastructure-Penn Station NYC/Northeast Corridor: Although it is a well known secret how Amtrak’s Board of Directors were put in place (other than Mrs. Brathwaite-Burke) to cater to their political patrons of the Northeast, apparently that has only allowed for political interference in scheduled repairs and maintenance of NYC’s Penn Station. The prior FRA administrator needlessly expended time and funds attempting to re-build the NEC for the future and to acquire new “Acelas” that the current infrastructure would allow for only a marginal time difference. Ideally, we can expect Mr. Batory to introduce a professional approach gained from his industry experience and put order to the many NEC infrastructure projects begging for priorities.  As he is certainly not subservient to Amtrak’s Board as its selected management group has shown itself to be, he can set the pace and focus for the Board; educate them on priorities; perhaps even develop sound fiscal policies not previously attributed to the games over GAAP (Generally Acceptable Accounting Principles).

Frankly, given the drama of the recent federal budget process, we should question why Elaine Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY), did not force Senator Schumer to release his hold on Ron Batory taking over the FRA. Although the position of Secretary of Transportation has eclipsed into a pure political role, we are seeing the end result of when the FRA administrator position has been relegated into a place to park good ol’ political people. The question is, once the New York Times and the Washington Post wake-up to this issue, what will they actually do to push on their political benefactors in their own backyard? How many more incidents, and piled up unresolved issues, does their have to be to allow government to function?