One of President Reagan’s qualities was his wit, including this glib quote: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘ I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” When it comes to railroad operations and Federal formal involvement via regulation, there should be no question in anyone’s mind as to the critical role that the FRA provides in ensuring safe railroad operations. I’ve seen the horrific operations of railroads in countries, including my current assignment with the Egyptian National Railways to advise on their safety (including PTC) and efficiency of operations, that are without such oversight. However, there are upper and lower limits as to what the government can and should do. For example, the often-heard statement of “We have 0% tolerance for unsafe operations” by regulators is clearly not objective, yet alone achievable. A more truthful statement, but with much less PR effectiveness, would be to state that the regulation of railroads is a tradeoff between costs and the level of safety achieved; a pursuit of diminishing returns. It should not be a matter of safety at any price.
As to an upper limit of the Federal government intruding upon railroad operations, arguably the most abusive lately is the U.S. Federal government’s mandate to implement PTC before 2016. This knee-jerk reaction by Congress (with President Bush’s signature) to the horrific September 2009 accident between Metrolink and UP, was way over the line as to an objective, pragmatic understanding and thinking as to the safety value of PTC relative to the cost of its deployment. This was not a matter of irrational action on part of the FRA, who had in fact made an honest attempt a number of years earlier (with the participation of railroad management and Labor) to compare the safety benefits of PTC to its costs. That analysis left no doubt that PTC was not justified as to the safety benefits it delivered. That doesn’t mean that a railroad would not want to implement PTC from their individual perspective as is apparently true of BNSF’s pursuit of PTC prior to the mandate. As a side note when last checked, the FRA’s website still foolishly stated that PTC provides for business benefits. (For readers of this posting outside of the U.S., please note that PTC can be deployed in a cost-effective fashion. But that is not the case in the U.S. with technicians-gone-wild as discussed in other postings on this blog.)
So! Based upon my fuzzy feelings for the FRA, I foolishly thought that the same value points of the FRA would apply to the Federal Transit Authority (FTA). How, so very wrong I was. Unlike the PTC mandate that was an over-kill as to Federal involvement, a recent PTC study RFP released by the FTA was a tremendous under-kill, if you will. The FTA is actually failing to take enough action to support the passenger rail operations with the activities required to meet the PTC 2016 deadline. That doesn’t mean that the FTA isn’t providing $s to provide assistance. Sadly, they are providing $s (as provided in the mandate) to engage contractors without any credible evidence of their capabilities other than knowing the right folks, In My Humble Opinion (IMHO) . It seems to be the perfect example of the old chestnut: “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
Without going into great depth, the PTC study RFP released at the end of 2010 had the following issues:
- It was poorly written given the objectives that were stated were both totally unnecessary (e.g. the study was to develop a template for a PTC Implementation Plan (PTCIP) that had already been accomplished 8 months prior, and incomplete in missing the primary challenges to be confronted by the transits.
- The RFP was specifically designed to deal with only one transit’s particular requirements, without the provisions to address the full spectrum of challenges, most notably the full spectrum of specific functionality that each transit requires for the use of PTC that are not being addressed by the freight railroads.
- The awarded contractor, University of Southern California (USC), has no known experience in PTC, yet alone primary railroad operations, IMHO.
- A clause was inserted in the RFP which prevented any competition, any consideration of credible proposals, other than that of the organization that Metrolink had selected as their desired contractor, IMHO. I refer to the following extraction from the RFP: the successful contractor must show that a “positive relationship (must exist) between grantee and the rail transit authority”. When Metrolink was approached to participate by at least one contractor, they were summarily rejected without any consideration of their credentials. In short, by default, Metrolink made the decision which contractor would be awarded this contract without objective evaluation of the other proposals.
- APTA (the American Public Transit Association) that represents the interests of the transit industry overall, along with the individual transits subjected to the PTC mandate, have noted between themselves that the lengthy duration of the study, as well as the focus on Metrolink, provides no effective value to the other 20+ transits.
This FTA-funded study is in effect an outrageous $900,000 gift to the folks at USC to produce nearly no value relative to the major issues with which the other transits are confronted to implement PTC, most notably the proper use of wireless technologies and the functional issues of importance to the passenger rail industry for the deployment of PTC.
Lastly, when asked if they would consider a protest as to their selection process based upon the above, FTA’s response was a resounding NO. Of course they would say that. It is embarrassing enough as to how they handled the situation without any further consideration on their part of the logic and legitimacy of how the study was both structured and awarded, IMHO. This FTA study is a shameful example of what should not be taking place in our country. The U.S. tax dollars are being totally wasted. So! Does FTA have the intestinal fortitude to restructure , or kill, this currently meaningless study for the benefit of the industry that it serves?
As Cobert would say “A Wave of the Finger to FTA”.