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Update from the Federal Railroad Administration

Investment, technology, information sharing and collaboration are key for ensuring commuter rail networks are forward-looking and safe, said panelists at Monday’s “Update from the Federal Railroad Administration” session.

Moderator Doug Allen, member of the APTA Executive Committee, chair of both the Commuter Rail Committee and Commuter Rail CEOs Subcommittee and chief executive officer of Virginia Railway Express, opened the session by applauding the close working relationship between the commuter rail community and the FRA—especially in matters of safety—before introducing FRA representatives Juan D. Reyes III, chief counsel; Karl Alexy, deputy associate administrator for railroad safety; and Paul Nissenbaum, associate administrator for railroad policy and development.

Reyes noted the confirmation of Ronald L. Batory as FRA administrator, acknowledging Batory’s 45 years of industry experience and grasp of industry issues. Reyes described how new technology is changing the way industry is looking at rail “just as Uber changed the way we use taxis,” adding that FRA’s initiatives are geared toward implementation of new technologies including autonomous vehicles—even exploring the potential for autonomous trains.

He acknowledged that building a 21st-century public transportation system requires significant investment but also efficient investment. The administration’s infrastructure initiative, therefore, follows certain tenets, he explained: make targeted federal investments, encourage self-help, align infrastructure investment with entities best suited to provide sustained and efficient investment and leverage the private sector. The corresponding legislative plan contains six principles based on those tenets:

* Stimulate infrastructure investment;
* Invest in rural America;
* Increase state and local authority;
* Eliminate regulatory barriers;
* Streamline the permitting process; and
* Empower American workers.

Alexy outlined FRA’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System (“C3RS”), a voluntary program conducted in partnership with NASA whereby railroad carriers and their employees can report unsafe events and conditions without fear of punitive action from management. Data, submitted anonymously online or by mail, is sent to one of 17 peer review teams, who evaluate the information and make recommendations for corrective actions.

“Everyone is moving to a data-driven approach,” Alexy said, explaining how FRA is looking to deliver data—to both internal and public stakeholders—more quickly, accurately and with enhanced visualization tools. “There are many advancements in analytic capabilities,” he said, “and we’re looking at Watson [IBM’s question answering computer system] and at social media as examples, to see where we can pick up on trends in grade crossing and trespassing fatalities and how to address the issues.” Trespassing incidents, he explained, constitute the greatest cause of fatalities on the rail network.

He impressed upon attendees the year-end deadline for PTC implementation, noting that a railroad could apply for an extension to Dec. 31, 2020, if it meets certain statutory requirements, including all equipment being in place, back office up and running, personnel trained and revenue service demonstrations underway on the majority of the network.

Panelists, from left: Doug Allen, Juan D. Reyes III, Karl Alexy and Paul Nissenbaum.

"We realize there is work the FRA can do, too,” he continued. “We can help systems understand what the issues are, and we will be initiating meetings with equipment manufacturers to expedite making the equipment available. But I want to urge you all to work together to share lessons learned—there will be common issues you will all have to overcome.”

Nissenbaum described how, since 2011, FRA has provided more than $2.2 billion toward PTC implementation through grant and credit programs including RRIF, TIFIA and private equity bonds through DOT’s Build America Bureau. He also outlined other FRA programs that offer funding for a wide variety of railroad safety and infrastructure restoration and enhancement projects. “But regarding PTC, what we’re hearing from the railroads is not a money issue, but more an interoperability and testing issue,” he said.

Nissenbaum also discussed the research and development (R&D) arm of his office, charged with developing innovative and forward-looking safety and technology practices.

FRA has established a number of ­public and private-sector ­partnerships for these projects, he explained, including many with APTA members. One such partnership, with the city of Orlando, FL, uses photo enforcement technologies to address grade-crossing issues. Violations are captured on camera, much as with traffic speeding incidents, and the photograph mailed to the violator to serve as a warning. “The response has been very positive,” Nissenbaum says. “Many violators don’t realize they have committed a violation and are appreciative of the education.”

Another partnership, in Maine, addresses trespassing, with live monitoring of various locations fed to a police dispatcher who can respond. Nissenbaum appealed to attendees for their R&D suggestions: “We look for any and all ideas for human factors, rolling stock, train control, track and intelligent railroad systems, so get your ideas in!”



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