December 30, 1999


The Honorable Jolene M. Molitoris
Federal Railroad Administration
400 Seventh Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590

Dear Administrator Molitoris:

The TRB Committee for Review of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Research and Development (R&D) Program held its fourth meeting on November 4- 5, 1999, convening at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The purpose of this meeting was to obtain first-hand information on the FRA R&D projects conducted by Volpe, to meet the Volpe staff who conduct or contract for these projects, and to understand more fully the relationship between FRA and the Volpe Center. The enclosed committee roster indicates the members who attended the meeting.* Following an open session with FRA and Volpe staff, the committee met in executive session to deliberate on the information presented and to develop this report.

Although the committee is not required contractually to submit a letter report to FRA at this time, we wish to comment on several specific issues. These issues concern both FRA’s responses to the committee’s previous letter report and material presented to the committee at the November meeting.

On behalf of the committee, I want to thank Arrigo Mongini, Steven Ditmeyer, Claire Orth, Magdy El-Sibaie, Thomas Raslear, Robert McCown, and Steven Sill of FRA and Robert Ricci and staff of the Volpe Center for participating in the meeting, and for providing the committee with program updates and plans for fiscal year 2001. I also want to extend our appreciation for the thorough response provided by FRA staff to each of the recommendations in our April 30, 1999, letter report.

The committee commends the Volpe staff for the clear and concise presentations both written and oral provided during the meeting to describe the projects and activities conducted for the FRA R&D program. The briefing notebooks given to the committee will serve as useful resource material for some time to come. Overall, the level of detail in the presentations was well directed to the committee members. As volunteers undertaking this ongoing R&D program review, the members have limited resources to delve into the details of every project and believe their most valuable contributions can be made by providing guidance at this level.

In its April 1999 letter report, the committee recommended that "…the FRA Administrator, in coordination with the Office of Safety and the Office of R&D, take the necessary steps to improve FRA’s data collection so that the multiple contributing factors involved in an accident can be correctly identified and analyzed and the sequence of events characterized." FRA responded, "While FRA recognizes that better accident data would be helpful, FRA does not intend to undertake a rulemaking in the near future to change the reporting of accidents and incidents." In light of this response, the committee would like to clarify its recommendation.

The committee did not recommend a rulemaking on data collection or even a major change in the data collected at this time. Accurate, precise data are necessary for conducting safety-related R&D, and FRA could assemble more accident and incident details without a formal rulemaking process. The committee stands by Recommendation 1 in the April 1999 letter report for future data collection efforts (including the need for data on near-misses). However, the committee’s immediate suggestion is for FRA to review its accident causal data, and perform a focused and limited set of in-depth analyses to obtain a reliable estimate of root causes that could provide a better understanding of the data already collected. Collaborative efforts with industry, such as that undertaken to support the development of a Corridor Risk Assessment Model, could also lead to more focused research on specific accident types.

Research into the root causes of various types of accidents could expand the application of investigatory analysis to cover a broader sample of serious or significant accidents than the small number investigated each year by the National Transportation Safety Board. More detailed accident analyses could also materially aid research projects, particularly those addressing human factors causes that have been studied insufficiently to date. In conducting analyses into root causes, moreover, FRA could begin to identify areas in which there are gaps in the available data or in which the form of data already being collected could be made more useful. This type of analysis should also serve as a foundation for ensuring that a future rulemaking on data collection would address existing data gaps.

Recommendation. The committee recommends that FRA pursue research into the root causes of specific types of accidents, using all available sources of accident-related details, to improve understanding of causal factors and identify existing data gaps. In addition, the committee encourages FRA to seek other opportunities for collaborative efforts with industry aimed at obtaining relevant accident details.

The committee found the update on the R&D project evaluation and investment analysis to be particularly responsive to the related recommendations in its April letter report. Inclusion of failure analysis is a critical addition to the process, and input from other relevant agencies and industry on countermeasures that address harm is appropriate. The committee looks forward to seeing the results of FRA’s application of this process to the proposed fiscal year 2003 budget and requests that the results be presented at the committee’s March 2000 meeting.

Finally, an element of the committee’s charge is to review and make recommendations on the proposed creation of a new rail safety institute. At the November meeting, FRA staff provided the committee with additional information related to this proposal. The committee will establish a subcommittee to review the proposal and make a recommendation for discussion at the March meeting. The committee’s findings and recommendations on this proposal will be included in its May 1, 2000, letter report.

As you know, Joseph Sussman stepped down as committee chair at the conclusion of the November meeting. In my new role as chair, I look forward to the committee’s continued cooperative relationship with the FRA R&D staff as we seek to provide constructive advice on strategic directions and appropriate goals for the R&D program.


Sincerely yours,



Alan J. Bing
Chair, Committee for Review of the FRA Research and Development Program



The Honorable Ted Stevens
The Honorable Robert C. Byrd
The Honorable Richard S. Shelby
The Honorable Frank R. Lautenberg

The Honorable C. W. Bill Young
The Honorable David R. Obey
The Honorable Frank R. Wolf
The Honorable Martin Olav Sabo


* As is standard policy for NRC committees, the members of this committee meet in executive session at the outset of each meeting to discuss any potential or perceived conflicts of interest that might have arisen for any of them. The committee has agreed to abide by TRB policies for dealing with conflicts of interest that may arise in the bidding for or winning of FRA contracts by firms with which members are associated. In the interest of full disclosure, we note the following FRA-related activities.

First, FRA funds a research program from its Next Generation High-Speed Rail (HSR) Program that TRB administers on FRA's behalf, as described below. TRB has established policies and procedures to ensure that this committee can evaluate the HSR R&D program independently of any impact its evaluation might have on TRB or the National Research Council. The Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis (IDEA) Program for intelligent transportation systems (ITS) includes a component that supports projects on ITS applications for the development and deployment of advanced rail system technologies, including HSR systems. The funds are used to encourage researchers to develop potential innovations in train control and risk reduction at grade crossings. Funding has been provided by FRA at a level of about $500,000 annually. Because the ITS Joint Program Office has discontinued funding for the ITS-IDEA program in fiscal year 2000, FRA will also cease to provide funds. However, FRA will continue to provide funds for an HSR-IDEA program that will solicit innovations for technologies related to HSR safety. The IDEA programs are administered by the Special Programs Division of TRB. IDEA investigations explore the feasibility of innovative and unproven new concepts or evaluate novel applications of advanced technologies from defense or industry to ITS or HSR practice. An IDEA award is a pass-through of funds to provide one-step, short-term support.

Second, individuals with the expertise and experience necessary to review the FRA R&D program generally have some prior or ongoing relationship with the sponsor. For example, Alan Bing’s employer has had prior contracts with the Volpe Center for FRA research projects. At the end of September 1999, Bing’s employer was awarded a 5-year task order contract by the Volpe Center for rail vehicle crashworthiness research. Two firms received such awards and will normally compete for individual tasks. Most of the research to be carried out under the contract is funded by FRA. Third, John Samuels is chairing the Management Committee for the North American Joint Positive Train Control Initiative, which is partially funded by the FRA Office of R&D and is being managed by Transportation Technology Center, Inc. staff with guidance from the management committee. Finally, Thomas Schmidt is also a member of the management committee.

Enclosure 1

Committee for Review of the Federal Railroad Administration
R&D Program

Dates of Attendance—November 4-5, 1999, Meeting


Dr. Joseph M. Sussman
JR East Professor and Professor
of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
11/4 & 5


Ms. Anna M. Barry
Director of Railroad Operations
Mass. Bay Transportation Authority
11/4 & 5

Mr. John G. Bell
Program Director
High Speed Trainsets
National Railroad Passenger Corp.
11/4 & 5

Dr. Alan J. Bing
Senior Manager
Arthur D. Little, Inc.
11/4 & 5

Dr. Sherwood C. Chu
Bethesda, MD
11/4 & 5

Mr. Thomas M. Downs
Washington, D.C

Mr. Nazih K. Haddad
Manager, Intercity Rail Passenger Service
Florida DOT
11/4 & 5

Mr. Ronald G. Markon
General Chairman
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers System Council No. 16

Dr. John M. Samuels
Vice President
Operations Planning and Budget Operations Division
Norfolk Southern Corporation
11/4 & 5

Dr. Nadine B. Sarter
Dept. of Industrial, Welding & Systems Engineering
The Ohio State University

Mr. Thomas P. Schmidt
Vice President-Engineering
11/4 & 5

Mr. Louis S. Thompson
Railways Adviser
The World Bank
11/4 & 5

Mr. Warren D. Weber
Rail Program Manager
California Department of Transportation
11/4 & 5

Mr. William Weinstein
Principal Member of the Technical Staff
The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc.
11/4 & 5

Liaison Representative

Mr. Steven R. Ditmeyer
Director, Office of Research & Development
Federal Railroad Administration
11/4 & 5