Watching Washington March 2018: Riding the brand at FRA

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor
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Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner

“Riding the brand”—a code of conduct exemplifying unbendable trustworthiness, integrity and commitment—is an expression as old as the Wild West, yet as contemporary as Federal Railroad Administrator Ron Batory. Nowhere is this code more needed than at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), lacking permanent leadership since January 2015 and suffering discord and an organizational brain-drain even longer.

Retired and financially secure, Batory, 68, should be believed that he possesses no agenda beyond the statutory mandate for his job. Uniquely, he is a product of a labor union upbringing and management training. His father, Lou, was an officer of a Transportation Communications Union predecessor. Ron chose management, advancing to president of two major switching railroads—Belt Railway of Chicago and Conrail Shared Assets.

While Chief Operating Officer of the latter—the eighth largest U.S. freight railroad, which provides open-access switching for CSX and Norfolk Southern in Northern New Jersey, Southern New Jersey/Philadelphia, and Detroit—Batory earned a remarkable accolade from former United Transportation Union President Paul Thompson: “Railroad presidents like Batory could put labor unions out
of business.”

Expect Batory’s ability to operate commendably at the intersection of labor and management to be fruitful in unpuzzling a surfeit of safety issues habitually muddled by the general media, rarely understood by the general public, and too often taken hostage by lawmakers for political gain.

Consider fatigue, which is not always as it seems. A majority of fatigue-related accidents occur on scheduled intercity passenger and commuter railroads, where train and engine (T&E) crews enjoy a better-quality work/life cycle than their freight counterparts. And on all railroads, even where napping is permitted, there lurks undiagnosed sleep apnea—a condition causing unintended sleep episodes and loss of situational awareness.

The FRA’s former Associate Administrator for Safety, Grady Cothen, says, “There are no metrics thus far identified as reliable to predict train accidents … Regulators and railroads focus on conditions and behaviors that give rise to [those outcomes].”

This leads us to the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) process, created in 1996 by former FRA Administrator Jolene Molitoris. RSAC gathers stakeholders, including labor and management, to collaborate on solutions to real and perceived safety problems. In recent years, the voluntary RSAC process has withered for lack of positive FRA leadership, even though it has a history of “scrubbing the disaggregated data to get it right,” Cothen says.

To restore the RSAC’s effectiveness requires open-minded leadership at the FRA. Batory was once quoted, “Employee opinions and expertise matter; the boss doesn’t always know best.”

With opioid addiction a national epidemic, and the number of rail workers testing positive for drug use up 43%, a transparent RSAC process can develop cost- effective and nimble strategies, including a labor-trusted standardized license decertification and appeals procedure where railroads now have discretion.

The RSAC process also can advance technology where Positive Train Control (PTC) is not required, such as T&E crew use of carrier-provided GPS-linked electronic tablets displaying real-time track conditions, special instructions and audible warnings of upcoming speed limit changes.

Another role for RSAC is why and how to implement—in place of prescriptive regulation—performance-based safety standards where the FRA establishes a desired safety outcome and carriers innovate to reach the goal. A labor-management collaborative effort to ensure the two complement each other is preferable to a third-party mandate such as in legislation (S. 1451) introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).

Other issues confronting Batory include calibrating safety audits among eight FRA regions; adherence to the 1996 Small Business Regulatory Fairness Enforcement Act requiring regulations affecting regional and short line railroads be scaled to their smaller size; CSX’s scrapping of industry-wide voluntary safety practices, such as prohibitions on boarding and dismounting moving trains, and allowing crews to take fatigue-abating naps; and a rising number of trespasser fatalities in the face of thin leadership at, and reduced funding of, Operation Lifesaver.

Then there is the congressional PTC mandate timetable, needing no further explanation here, whose superintending will consume Batory’s waking hours worse than dysentery.

Welcome aboard, Mr. Administrator.

Categories: C&S, Class I, Commuter/Regional, Freight, High Performance, Intercity, News, Passenger, PTC, Regulatory, Safety, Short Lines & Regionals, Switching & Terminal Tags: ,