Thursday, November 23, 2017

The high price of Freedom of Information

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The high price of Freedom of Information

In October, I made a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the Federal Railroad Administration for specific information regarding PTC performance on U.S. railroads. I received a reply on Nov. 21:

Re: FRA FOIA File No. 18-030

Dear Mr. Schanoes:

This letter is in regards to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, FRA file number 18-030, that you submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on October 26, 2017.

I am writing to inform you that the estimated cost of processing your request is considerably more than the $100.00 you have agreed to pay. Our current estimate of the cost of processing the approximately 32,576 pages of records responsive to your request is $56,260.23, which includes our estimated costs for search, review, and duplication. FRA calculated this amount based on our estimate of the number of hours (approximately 1,086) it will take to process the responsive records and the Department of Transportation’s fee schedule for processing FOIA requests. Under the circumstances, you may:

• Provide us with a payment of $56,260.23 for the processing of your request (information on how to make a payment is provided below);

• Ask us to process your request up to the amount you have already agreed to pay ($100.00), describing specifically what documents you wish FRA to process;

• Reduce the scope of your request, so as to limit the amount of time and/or duplication that would be required to process your request, such that your fee does not exceed the amount that you have agreed to pay; or

• Withdraw your request.

Please note that, pursuant to 49 C.F.R. § 7.45, the timeframe for processing your request beyond $100 will not resume until the remaining issues regarding the payment of FOIA fees have been resolved. If we do not receive your written response within 20 workdays from the date of this letter, we will presume you are no longer interested in pursuing your request and we will close our file.

Please feel free to contact me at daniel.orlaskey@dot.gov, or by phone at (202) 493-6094 if you have any questions.

FOIA fees can be paid online at https://www.pay.gov/public/form/start/1022016/.

Daniel Orlaskey, Attorney, Federal Railroad Administration

I replied to Orlaskey as follows:

Dear Mr. Orlaskey,

Thank you very much for your email of 11/21/2017 with letter attached.

Well, $56,260.23 is a bit more than I can handle unless of course I win the Powerball jackpot this week, and if I do I promise you will be among the first ten people to know. However given those long odds, let me alter the scope of the time frame of the request, such that the data requested, the categories of the data, remain the same but the request now will only pertain to a specific month: May 2017.

I believe FRA has an obligation to provide the information I requested to the public; that in fact FRA should have been providing that information to the public since the first railroad applied for and initiated revenue service demonstration so that the public can assess the reliability, or lack thereof, of a system that requires robust reliability in order to meet the goal established by law—an improvement in safe train operations.

Thank you all for your time and consideration of this request.

David Schanoes

I have no idea how much one month’s worth of data will cost; probably more than I can afford, maybe not. I’ve received several offers of help with the expense. If a single month isn’t too expensive, I'll amend my request a second time, to include data from May 2016 so that a comparison might possibly be made.

I simply cannot comprehend that FRA has not been aggregating, reviewing and processing the data, and the data categories in my original request all this time. I mean, really—if you're in charge of FRA, or a division of FRA, what is it you want to know about PTC systems if not their parameters of effective, reliable train control?

This leads me to believe that FRA hasn’t been keeping track of any of this for its own purposes. That’s truly frightening.

Beats the hell out of me, comrades, as we used to say.

I’ve since followed up my response to Orlaskey’s $56,260.23 answer:

Dear Mr. Orlaskey;

Several colleagues have pointed out to me, dull knife in the drawer that I am, that 1,086 hours is about 6 months work for one person. This brings to my mind disturbing implications:

• Has FRA has not produced monthly analysis of PTC performance—trains scheduled to operate with PTC engaged and operable; actual trains operated with PTC engaged and operable; runs completed by trains with PTC engaged and operable; number of PTC initiated enforcements as a percentage of runs completed with PTC engaged and operable; number of false enforcements as a percentage of runs completed, etc. etc.—aggregating and processing the data by type of PTC system deployed (I-ETMS/ETMS, ITCS, ACSES II) rather than by railroad?

• To date, has FRA produced no trend analysis reflecting the improvement or lack thereof, in PTC reliability, i.e. an increase in the number of PTC runs completed with PTC operable and engaged, by type rather than railroad?

• Has FRA not produced a trend analysis of the reduction over time, if any, of PTC initiated enforcements, and the decline of false enforcements, by type rather than railroad?

Certainly such analyses would have to take note of new properties or new territories being brought into the RSD or PTC operation, as we might expect “more bumps” in the initial rollouts.

If FRA has developed such analyses, that is precisely what I am requesting.

And if FRA hasn’t produced these analyses, then why not?

David Schanoes

David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2008. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in the operating division, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is ten percent planning plus ninety percent execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That's not so simple.”

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