close enough for government work.
And that's the sorry truth about FRA's Safety Advisory 2015-03, Operational and signal modification for compliance with maximum authorized passenger train speeds and other speed restrictions.
First, FRA's done this before, like 18 months ago, issuing Safety Advisory 2013-08, which recommended that all railroads:
review the details of the overspeed derailment at DV on Metro-North Railroad;
instruct employees on the importance of compliance with speed restrictions;
remind employees that exceeding the authorized speed by 10 mph or more is grounds for decertification [interesting wrinkle that, since now FRA thinks decertifiable offenses should be protected by the provisions of C3RS];
use the quarterly and 6 month reviews of operational testing program data to target compliance with authorized speeds; and in particular the 20 mph gradient that FRA thinks is critical;
and emphasize the importance of communication between crewmembers when approaching and operating through areas where speed is restricted.
FRA advised and recommended. We know that.
What we don't know is if FRA ever followed up on a single one of its recommendations.
We don't know what railroads did or did not do in response to the advisory.
We do know that recommendations are not enforceable.
We do know that shortly after the MNR derailment, there were two separate incidents of overspeeding on Metra that caused FRA to initiate an investigation-- which investigation produced another series of recommendations.
We do know that Sarah Feinberg, FRA administrator (acting and nominated) testified that it was not appropriate for FRA to issue an emergency order to the entire industry after the MNR derailment because, according to her, EOs have to narrowly address specific issues on, more or less, specific properties.
Ms. Feinberg's view, however, is not supported by FRA's own explanation for its authority to issue emergency orders:
Authority to enforce Federal railroad safety laws has been delegated by the Secretary of Transportation to the Administrator of FRA. 49 CFR 1.89. Railroads are subject to FRA’s safety
jurisdiction under the Federal railroad safety laws. 49 U.S.C. 20101, 20103. FRA is authorized to issue emergency orders where an unsafe condition or practice ‘‘causes an emergency situation involving a hazard of death, personal
injury, or significant harm to the environment.’’ 49 U.S.C. 20104. These orders may immediately impose ‘‘restrictions and prohibitions . . . that
may be necessary to abate the situation.’’
That's from EO 29. It's "boiler plate." It's there in all the emergency orders that FRA has issued industry-wide.
Emergency Orders can be difficult, and the difficulty is that they are emergency responses to problems, and bear the imperfections of their rushed creation.
Usually, the orders become incorporated into existing or new regulations through the rule-making process. And that's a good thing.
This provides the interested, and affected, parties, railroad management, railroad labor, shippers, the public with the opportunity to question, improve, oppose and/or support the EO. That's called due process, and the due process is required because...because violation of EOs carries sanctions; because violation of regulations triggers penalties.
Now FRA opts to issue another "safety advisory," and Ms. Feinberg states:
"The FRA fully expects passenger railroads to take immediate action and implement these recommendations.”
which makes me wonder a) are these recommendations or requirements b) implement these recommendations by when c) what mechanisms will FRA use to determine satisfactory "compliance" with these "recommendations" ?
Short version: What standards are there?
The advisory targets overspeed violations, recommending that railroads utilizing cab signal/speed control systems modify the systems to automatically enforce train braking in locations where the civil speed requirement requires a 20 mph or greater reduction in speed.
Well, I swear I've been through this before but then again, one man's deja vu is another man's short-term memory loss, and recognition of that constitutes....wisdom more or less when it comes to understanding bureaucracy.
So one mo' time: Unless and until the "approach speed," the maximum speeds are themselves continuously enforced, enforcing only those areas which require +20 mph deceleration does not eliminate the potential for overspeed derailment.
Look at the Philadelphia accident itself. Amtrak did not enforce the deceleration on the eastward movement (in my world, the timetable direction from Philadelphia to New York is east) because the MAS approaching the curve was less than the calculated derailment speed. Of course, this reasoning actually ignores the very cause of violation it seeks to prevent-- human error--in that it presumes the error is made approaching the curve itself, that is to say failure to reduce the train speed from the authorized maximum, ignoring that the human error can, does, will, occur at any point and can, does, and will involve the failure to comply with the authorized maximum from the getgo.
Who would have thought that a locomotive engineer of the eastward train would violate the MAS of 80 mph by almost 30 mph? That's the point, though, isn't it? That's where the failure was initiated.
If the maximum authorized speed is 70 mph and there is a curve rated for 55 mph, FRA neither requires nor advises nor recommends that the ATC be configured to enforce the assumed 15 mph deceleration. Assume not only makes an a,s,s out of u, and me. It kills. A locomotive engineer can approach the 55 mph curve at 80, 90, 110 mph and with impunity.
Without enforcement of the maximum speeds, every civil speed restriction, however minor, must be enforced to prevent human error overspeed derailments.
But wait there's more. FRA recommends these alterations to ATC systems where such alterations will "not interfere with the timely implementation of PTC."
No joke. Believe me, no joke. This is deadly serious business. Exactly what constitutes "timely implementation" of PTC, given that FRA has acknowledged that compliance with the lawful date of timely implementaton, December 31, 2015, will not be achieved system-wide, might be achieved "property-wide" on only a small number of carriers; given that Congress knows that timely implementation as it mandated by law will not be achieved; that legislation to push the due date out by 3-5 years has been introduced for debate?
How can you even talk about timely implementation of PTC under these conditions?
I don't mean to belabor a point, or embarrass anyone, but remember the overspeed derailments on Metra, in the first decade of this century, on the former Rock Island line? Remember NTSB's recommendation that Metra install automatic speed control? And remember Metra's response to that recommendation, that Metra intended to install ETMS in the very near future (the future very near to 2005) and that installing ATC would interfere with the effort to install ETMS?
So ten years later, I'm going to have PTC installed in the "near future" (date undetermined), but if I have to alter my budget, change my procurement program, devote employee hours to installation, testing, validation, qualification of ATC and the employees responsible for maintaining, and complying with these systems, I'm going to tell my lawyers to tell FRA's lawyers that complying with a recommendation is going to interfere with my efforts to satisfy a law.
FRA has nobody to blame but itself for the contradictions, inadequacies, and impracticality of its own "suggestions."
The railroad industry has no one to blame but itself for being subject to these contradictions, inadequacies, and impracticality of FRA's recommendations.
"We" meaning railroads providing or hosting a passenger service should have implemented an augmented automatic train control system, continuously enforcing the maximum speeds at every location, configured to ensure a positive stop when signal indications so required, years ago, years before Robert Martin Sanchez blew the signal at Chatsworth.
We should have done what we know works before Congress decided to tell us to do what it assumes will work.
We have reached a point of near-perfect paralysis, where we've run up the inside of the walls of the cage of our own making.
Everybody, FRA, NTSB, Congress thinks it's doing its best with recommendatons, top tens and the usual nonsense. In truth, none of it is close enough...not even for government work.
June 10, 2015
Note to Ripley: IQs still dropping