Washington, DC - December 16, 2013 - U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Richard Blumenthal revealed that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the nation’s chief rail safety overseers, is woefully underfunded and unable to fully evaluate existing and future rail safety programs across the nation's freight and passenger railroads. The agency lacks the resources to inspect 99% of the nation’s rails and to sufficiently prepare for the oversight of new safety measures. Schumer and Blumenthal announced that they will fight for additional funds in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations bill so the agency can hire an additional 45 inspectors, after the budget sequester cut approximately $9 million from the FRA's budget in the 2013 fiscal year. These inspectors will be dedicated to inspecting rail and evaluating the safety protocols and infrastructure of railroads around the country. Schumer and Blumenthal requested that the Congress meet the Obama Administration's full 2014 request of $185 million for Safety and Operations, an increase of approximately $15 million over this year's sequestered budget. The Senators noted that FRA does not seek to inspect 100% of the nation’s rails each year – a task that is shared by states and the railroads themselves – but additional funding would allow them to dramatically increase the percentage and spot safety checks.
"If we want to prevent tragic accidents like the one we just saw in New York, we have to make sure that the agency responsible for rail safety in this country is not woefully underfunded," said Schumer. "This month's derailment should serve as a wakeup call, reminding us that we need to dedicate real resources to the railroads’ main oversight agency so they can hire enough inspectors to ensure the safety of rail passengers across the country."
"Railroad safety enforcement is anemic – starved of adequate resources and power. Funding to enforce federal rail safety standards, now seemingly an afterthought, must be made a priority,” Blumenthal said. “The FRA should match its rhetoric with money – and seek more authority to order safety upgrades at railroads across the country. Given the recent accidents, riders need and deserve a watchdog with both bite and bark."
In a Congressional briefing last week with the New York and Connecticut federal delegations, the FRA revealed that they are woefully underfunded and unable to fully fulfill their oversight role. According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), FRA is only able to inspect about 1% of the nation's tracks each year with the resources they are allocated. The agency's rail-safety oversight framework relies on inspections to ensure railroads comply with federal safety regulations. FRA inspects railroad infrastructure and operations, identifies safety defects, and may cite railroads for violations. The GAO has found that the FRA faces three major rail safety challenges - 1) implementation of its oversight of mandated safety measures and new railroad risk reduction plans, 2) adjusting to changing rail traffic flows, and 3) ensuring it has enough inspectors for its current and future oversight workload. FRA expects 30 percent of its field safety staff will be eligible to retire in the next 5 years. With the resources that Schumer and Blumenthal are fighting for, they would be able to hire an additional 45 inspectors, inspect far more track, and begin sending safety "strike teams" to railroads around the nation in order to conduct additional safety audits.
Schumer and Blumenthal said that additional funding would be possible to secure due to the recent bipartisan budget deal, struck last week. The resolution, which sets top-line spending levels through 2015, passed the House of Representatives last week and is set to pass the Senate this coming week. The House and Senate appropriations committee will now seek to pass legislation laying out individual program funding levels and priorities. Schumer today wrote to leaders of the Senate Appropriations committee requesting additional funding for the FRA by meeting the Administration's budget request for 2014.
In the wake of this month's Metro-North's derailment the FRA has said they will be sending a "Strike Team" of safety experts from around the country to review the railroad's safety procedures. In a congressional briefing this week, they also said they would like to send similar, pre-emptive teams to railroads across the state and nation, but lack sufficient resources. Schumer today said that he was fighting for those resources to make that a possibility.
The FRA promotes and regulates safety throughout the Nation's railroad industry. The office executes its regulatory and inspection responsibilities through a diverse staff of railroad safety experts. FRA staff includes 400 Federal safety inspectors who operate out of eight regional offices. FRA conducts its oversight and inspections in conjunction with railroads themselves, who are also expected to be undertaking ongoing safety precautions and carrying out safety inspections.
According to testimony from FRA Adminstrator Joseph Szabo earlier this year, FRA is requesting $184.5 million for its Safety & Operations account to continue providing existing oversight and implementing new requirements that were required in the 2009 rail safety law passed in the wake of the California. Metrolink crash. The Act authorized 200 new safety positions over the five-year period, but less than a quarter have been funded through appropriations. Szabo said the FY 2014 budget requests new 30 new personnel for FRA’s Office of Safety, including 10 rail safety inspectors to bolster FRA’s on-the-ground oversight of rail operations and 20 safety specialists to implement new regulations in areas such as risk reduction, training standards, and conductor certification. An additional 15 positions are requested to support FRA’s rail policy and programmatic development efforts.
Schumer and Blumenthal said that without the proper resources, inspections and certifications of new safety technologies could be unacceptably delayed. In a 2013 GAO report, the agency found that new technologies, such as automated control systems, are another challenge that FRA will have to incorporate into its rail safety oversight framework. For example, because Positive Train Control (PTC) systems are extremely complex command, control, and communications systems, the FRA believes it will require a specialized inspector workforce—which FRA currently does not have—to provide adequate safety oversight. GAO said that some railroads cited concerns with FRA’s limited resources and the agency’s ability to help facilitate railroads’ PTC implementation. To date, their investigation indicates that these concerns were based around two activities: field testing and certification. First, FRA officials must verify the field testing of PTC. However, FRA reported that it lacks the staffing resources to embed a dedicated FRA inspector at each railroad for regular, detailed, and unfiltered reporting on a railroads’ PTC progress. To address the lack of staff to verify field testing, FRA has taken on an audit approach, whereby railroads submit field test results for approval as part of their safety plans. Second, a PTC system must be certified before a railroad can operate it in revenue service. FRA certifies a PTC system by approving a railroad’s safety plan. FRA has expressed concern that railroads will submit their safety plans to FRA at roughly the same time.