The Problem is the FRA, not Amtrak

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) has finally come out explicitly in favor of privatizing the Northeast Corridor and letting private consortia bid for high-speed rail construction. Mica’s rationale is that Amtrak is an inefficient government provider, and its proposal for spending $117 billion over 30 years to build high-speed rail in the Northeast is deficient.

Not mentioned anywhere in the article is the FRA, which is the real obstacle to modern rail operations. Mica has to my knowledge said nothing about the FRA, which is too bad, since it could feed into the Republican narrative of bad government and the need for privatization and deregulation.

Under present FRA regulations, not much more than NEC service levels can be done: rolling stock would have to meet guidelines developed for the steam era, curve speeds would be limited, and the signaling would not provide enough capacity for adequate service levels on shared track. This is independent of the incompetence of every FRA-compliant railroad; in fact part of the incompetence is manifested in unwillingness to try to get waivers, even though Caltrain, a small operator, applied for a partial waiver and got it.

On the other hand, under modern regulations, even Amtrak could provide somewhat better results, and an Amtrak that Mica and the Obama administration pressured to reform could provide much better results. Although such reforms would include less staffing per amount of service provided, ridership could increase so much that total employment would increase, making this at least in principle fathomable by the bureaucrats. If top management wants to make it happen, it will happen.

In contrast, no reform of the FRA is possible short of a complete overhaul. The appropriate passenger rail regulation in the US is that everything that’s legal in Japan or Europe is legal in the US, and the only local task should be a skeletal staff reconciling European and Japanese rules where necessary. A piecemeal approach leads to partial and suboptimal reforms, requiring additional testing of already extensively used trains. For example, in Europe, tilting trains can have up to 315 270-300 (corrected, see dejv’s comment below) mm of cant deficiency, but the FRA won’t permit more than 229 (9″).

JNR’s problems in the 1980s involved overstaffing and operation of marginal lines; these are the things privatization could fix. This is not true of bad regulations, which remain no matter what. Private vendors could lobby for a fix, but they have other interests in mind than maximum efficiency – for example, making life harder for competitors – and besides, what’s the point of hoping for private lobbyists to do a task that as chair of the relevant committee you can do yourself? At the end, a government that’s too incompetent to do things by itself is probably too incompetent to be trusted to ensure the private sector will provide better service rather than looting the taxpayer.

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16 Responses to The Problem is the FRA, not Amtrak

  1. Everything you say is spot on, but two things:

    1. I remember reading in the original .gov the word “deregulation,” and since it explicitly mentioned leaving labor protections in place, I suppose it’s possible that he was talking about the FRA regs. Of course, the more likely scenario is he’s just a dumb politician who doesn’t know the difference between privatization and deregulation.

    2. Is it possible that privatization would basically mean no more FTA Buy America? After all, it wouldn’t be public funds, so presumably the NEC would no longer be hobbled by protectionism.

    • Alon Levy says:

      1. Fair enough. I’ll admit to having read just the WSJ piece, not the original release. It could be that the WSJ reporters got it wrong, but it would surprise me, since in the past Mica has constantly slagged Amtrak and said nothing about the FRA.

      2. If the trains are not federally-funded, then it means no Buy America. Unfortunately, if the trains are FRA-regulated, then it doesn’t help, because they’ll still have to be custom-designed and their performance will be hobbled.

    • Alex B. says:

      On Buy America, it depends on where the original funding comes from.

      Take DC’s Circulator – the buses are Belgian, and they did not comply with BA because DC didn’t use any federal funds on the service. They bought them off the shelf. Since then, BA-compliant buses have improved a great deal, but the point stands.

      With HSR, it doesn’t make much sense to buy non-BA compliant rolling stock if those trains are illegal to run on US tracks. The FRA rules mean that you pretty much have to build specific-to-North-America stuff anyway. So, no, I don’t think privatization alone (without reform of the FRA rules) wouldn’t change the effective impact of BA.

  2. While you’ve commented on this elsewhere, its worth pointing out that the existing FRA regulatory regime is tolerated by the freight railroads:

    * They already have rolling stock and infrastructure which complies
    * Things like buff strength requirements are compatible with the common practice of running long trains–an application where you WANT a heavy locomotive, as the maximum lateral force that an engine can exert is proportional to its weight
    * Helps discourages passenger traffic by making it uneconomical, which is highly detrimental to a railroad running long heavy freight trains. The only FRA-compliant passenger rail in the US is either highly subsidized (including much of the Amtrak system, as well as local boondoggles like WES), or loco-hauled services in dense urban corridors.

    • Tom West says:

      Given passenger railroads pay track access fees, the question is whether the income from those fees is greater or less than the (potential) profit from not having passenger trains there. They are there to make money, not to haul freight.

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  5. Walter Sobchak says:

    Though most of the American network is either freight only or shared passenger-freight, the FRA should make a concrete distinction between majority passenger or majority freight use on certain corridors.

    If the New Haven Line only sees 1 or 2 freight trains a day, then why should it have to comply with FRA freight regulations, leaving us with lumbering, heavy, redundant, and expensive cars. A lot of money could be saved if Amtrak or any large commuter rail operation was allowed to design for passenger-only operations instead of outdated freight rules.

    Besides, I don’t think any private company could deal with the FRA; I know Metro-North’s balls have been busted continually and huge fines have been racked up for something as ridiculous like when workers put 2 handbrakes instead of 3 on some cars that were only sitting in a yard for 10 minutes.

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  8. dejv says:

    > For example, in Europe, tilting trains can have up to 315 mm of cant deficiency, but the FRA won’t permit more than 229 (9″)

    Just a quick note – 315 mm figure is valid for broad-gauge railways, so it doesn’t really tell anything. The highest number for standard-gauge railways is Germany’s 300 mm and it’s only Germany’s tilting trains that are plagued by axle cracks, other trains with the same technology limited to 270 mm don’t have this problem.

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  10. The Snob says:

    A couple years ago I met a senior FRA official at a dinner party and asked him some of these questions. His response was that the agency definitely would allow the use of Japanese or European rolling stock, provided that you imported the whole system, signals, rails, etc, and that the trackage was not shared with conventional trains. Which seems reasonable enough, except that $800 billion would not be enough to pay for the lawyers you’d need to build a new right of way in the NEC.

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