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Washington, D.C.

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April 30, 1998

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

Dear Administrator Molitoris:

At the request of the House and Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittees and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Research Council (NRC) has convened the Committee for Review of the FRA Research and Development Program. The committee held its first meeting in Washington, D.C., on March 16- 17, 1998. The enclosed committee roster indicates the members who attended this meeting.*

This letter report documents the first of four annual reviews of FRA’s entire R&D effort, encompassing both the safety-related Railroad R&D program and the Next Generation High-Speed Rail Program (NGHSR). Specific issues to be addressed by these reviews are as follows: (a) the agency's R&D management structure and approach, (b) the current direction and allocation of moneys devoted to the various program areas, and (c) whether there is an appropriate balance of federal, state, and private-sector input and cost sharing. In addition, the committee has been directed to address whether the directions and objectives outlined in FRA's 5-year R&D strategic plan are appropriate. An evaluation will be made of whether it is of critical importance to establish a Railroad Safety Institute and whether such an Institute would be duplicative of current research efforts. Throughout its reviews, the committee has been asked to keep as a focal point the question of whether the FRA R&D program could better serve the safety mission of the agency.

During the course of its first meeting, the committee met in open session with FRA staff who presented an overview of the directions and objectives of the R&D program and then gave more detailed reports on the program elements, including the management structure and approach, the 1998 program, plans for 1999, the 5-year R&D strategic plan, the proposal for a Railroad Safety Institute, and the relationship of the R&D program to FRA’s safety mission. In addition, Roy A. Allen, President, Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), gave a presentation on the railroad industry’s R&D program and that program’s relationship with FRA. The committee then met in executive session to deliberate on the information presented and to develop this report.

On behalf of the committee, I want to thank James McQueen, Arrigo Mongini, Steven Ditmeyer, Robert McCown, Grady Cothen, Claire Orth, Magdy El-Sibaie, and other FRA staff for their spirit of cooperation and substantial participation in this meeting, for their provision of extensive materials and presentations to the committee, and for their responsiveness in providing additional materials promptly after the meeting. The information provided by the FRA staff was essential to the committee in undertaking its first program review and preparing this report.

With regard to the NGHSR program, the work of this committee will clearly build upon the work of the earlier Committee for an Assessment of Federal High-Speed Ground Transportation Research and Development, which submitted four letter reports during the past 2 years.

This report is structured to address the major issues encompassed by the committee’s charge as outlined above; included are recommendations developed by the committee on three of these issues. Major developments that have occurred in the NGHSR program since the last report of the earlier committee are also described. The report concludes with a brief discussion of some other issues addressed by the committee and future committee activities.

The FRA staff reviewed the management structure of the R&D activities under the Associate Administrator for Railroad Development, including the Office of Research and Development, which administers the Railroad R&D and Nationwide Differential GPS programs, and the Office of Passenger and Freight Services, which manages the NGHSR development program.

The two major programs are divided along the lines of legislative authority, funding appropriations, and the major goals of the 5-Year R&D Strategic Plan. The R&D program of the Office of R&D encompasses a wide array of R&D initiatives and projects, primarily in support of the plan’s goal of improving railroad safety and of specific safety regulations. Within each R&D program, the activities are structured by technical subject defined by program area, although there are a few individual project assignments that cross these lines. The NGHSR program is intended to encourage and facilitate the adoption of high-speed passenger rail technologies and supports the plan’s second major goal of technology advancement.

In a series of detailed presentations, the FRA staff provided the committee with more specifics than could be evaluated within the time frame for producing this letter report. Therefore, the committee reserves judgment on many individual elements of the R&D activities and focuses here on issues related to the overall program structure. Moreover, because the earlier NRC committee has already devoted four letter reports to the NGHSR program, this report focuses mainly on the R&D program of the Office of R&D.

Overall Program Design

R&D Program of the Office of Research and Development. The R&D staff presented the committee with a complete listing of the projects they have under way in R&D’s ten program elements: human factors, rolling stock safety, track and structures safety, track/train interaction, train control, grade crossings, hazardous materials, train occupant protection, high-speed ground transportation safety, and R&D facilities and test equipment. The committee expects to gain a deeper understanding of these specific program elements during the course of its work.

The committee’s initial impression is that the topics being addressed appear to be sensible and that many of the initiatives and projects appear meritorious. As indicated above, however, the committee reserves judgment on the specific elements because it has not yet had the opportunity to study them in depth, especially with regard to the R&D program design.

The committee does have some observations about the process used in developing the R&D program elements and the extent of integration between this program and the NGHSR program (discussed further below). The committee was informed that the identification of projects begins with the FRA program managers, whose judgments are informed by the ongoing work they manage; discussions with various constituencies, including, most importantly, the FRA Office of Safety; and analysis of available safety information. The program managers’ judgments are then reviewed and adjusted by their line management, by the Administrator, by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and ultimately by Congress. In addition, once the overall program has been established as part of a multiyear budget cycle, the Office of R&D is often asked to support specific unplanned analyses for the FRA Office of Safety or the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC), a joint industry-labor consensus group created by FRA to assist in accelerating the pace of safety regulation. FRA staff indicated that these unanticipated assignments occur because of new safety issues that arise in association with rulemaking or related safety concerns. Importantly, it appears to the committee that these assignments serve as a mechanism for the Office of R&D’s substantial involvement in safety rulemaking. However, the committee believes that allowing this process to be open-ended has the potential to disrupt and overwhelm the planned R&D program.

The committee believes the current process for developing a program is understandable because of the steps required to gain the approval of the multiple authorities to which FRA staff must respond, but the process also appears to hamper the development of a program with a strategic focus. It appears to the committee that the staff receive multiple, sometimes differing, directions about priorities. However, just as FRA is requiring individual railroads to develop system safety plans demonstrating how their activities are focused on safety priorities, the committee believes that the FRA’s R&D program should be held to the same standard of priority setting.

The process for developing the R&D program elements could be improved by providing an explicit rationale for priority setting and project development. Although the program managers identify new projects on the basis of the safety concerns voiced by their various constituent groups, the committee believes that major safety issues and problems should first be determined. Doing so would serve two important purposes: (a) making the case for program approval and support (funding and staffing) and (b) deriving specific projects. External reviewers (such as this committee, OMB, and Congressional staff) could thereby assess the importance to safety of individual initiatives and the degree to which each might contribute to reducing railroad accidents. In the absence of such detail, it is difficult to determine trade-offs based on priorities.

The R&D staff must respond to different customers, both internal and external, and would be aided in doing so by having a well-articulated list of projects ranked in priority order. For example, the needs of external customers, such as Amtrak and state agencies, may relate to their timetables for the introduction of new equipment or technology that must be assessed in relation to safety regulations prior to actual operations. In the face of competing demands for staff time and resources and the need to defer some research in order to respond to customer requests, projects lowest on the list could be deferred, or even eliminated in the case of some previously researched areas. Obviously, the potential for making a more explicit and empirical connection to safety depends largely on the availability and quality of safety information. The committee therefore requests that FRA staff examine and report on the adequacy of the data available for this purpose, and report its findings at the committee’s next meeting (see also the specific recommendation below).

Some final observations and questions about program design address the extent to which the R&D program should be driven by the rulemaking process. Whereas support for rulemaking is important, the R&D program should also be exploring new concepts and technologies, including relevant technologies and practices from other industries, that could provide safety benefits regardless of current or proposed rulemakings. A certain amount of such work is under way, but the committee is unclear about the proportion of the agency’s R&D portfolio that is of this nature.

Related to this issue is the overall balance in the program between research and development. Much of the work appears to involve the development of technologies in support of specific rules. How much of the work addresses more systemic safety problems? It would be useful to hear more from the FRA staff about this question and the issues raised above at a future meeting.

Next Generation High-Speed Rail Program. The FRA NGHSR staff provided an overview of the structure and rationale of the program’s high-speed rail development activities. These activities have three major program areas: high-speed positive train control (PTC), nonelectric locomotive development, and grade crossing safety. The overall direction and focus of this program as expressed by FRA management are consistent with what was conveyed to the earlier NRC committee, which endorsed these three areas as appropriate for the implementation of high-speed rail in the United States.

Program Integration
One example of integration between the R&D program of the Office of R&D and the NGHSR program is the cross-cutting effort to comprehensively analyze prior research and information sources addressing grade crossing safety. The staff appear to be making good use of the information being developed by the NGHSR program’s grade crossing activities in North Carolina (the "sealed corridor" project). Linkage between other program elements, for example in the area of train control, is less clear. It would be helpful to the committee if FRA staff were to provide additional examples of how the two programs are integrated.

The R&D program could be strengthened by a more systematic process for program development and project selection that would clearly link projects with priority safety concerns. The committee recommends that FRA explore the possibility of providing more explicit and direct justification for individual projects on the basis of their significance for safety and their potential safety benefits. Doing so would require both an analysis of the quality and availability of relevant data and the development of a procedure for using this information, if adequate, to set priorities. The committee understands that such priorities are already set implicitly on the basis of staff judgment; the issue is whether the rationale for these choices can be made more evident to others.

The allocation of funds to various program areas should be discussed in the context of the modest size of the R&D program. Even at a funding level of roughly $20 million per year, the Office of R&D has less than one-quarter of the funds and staffing it had in the peak years of the mid-1970s. Since that time, the agency’s R&D program has become restricted to safety issues.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) strategic plan highlights multiple focus areas, including mobility and environmental concerns, in which railroads might provide viable solutions. FRA’s own strategic plan sets forth goals and objectives related to these areas as well as others, including intermodal transportation, investment, and industry structure. Yet research activities in these areas have simply been dropped over the years as the agency’s R&D focus has become substantially limited to safety. In the future, the committee may want to broaden its deliberations to include the possibility of FRA’s expanding its research efforts into some of these other strategic areas.

The committee’s review of the issue of moneys devoted to the various program areas began with an obvious question: are the major program thrusts those that offer the most payoff for safety? FRA’s R&D management is definitely focused on the agency’s safety mission, and clearly much, if not all, of the R&D activity is closely related to safety. The committee’s initial reaction, however, is that it is difficult to assess the allocation of funds across the various elements of the R&D program because it is difficult to determine whether budgetary decisions are being made strategically in light of their potential safety benefits. Having a prioritized list of projects ranked in order of their potential safety benefit, as recommended in the previous section, would help in this regard.

Another way of addressing the question of resource allocation is to examine past outputs of the R&D program and their probable effects on safety. It is always difficult to draw direct linkages between R&D and outcomes. Some projects will inevitably prove to be blind alleys; this is in the nature of research. Moreover, accidents are typically the result of multiple causes, including operator error, equipment failure, and other circumstances, such as reduced visibility. Nonetheless, it would be instructive to hear about the past successes of the R&D program and their effects on safety.

FRA has a multifaceted program, with research under way in many areas. It is not clear, however, whether there is enough flexibility in project contracts to allow redirection of resources in response to requests from the Office of Safety, RSAC, and other customers. A considerable proportion of the program appears to be reactive, rather than strategic, in nature. In this same vein, the committee observes that the FRA staff are managing a large number of relatively small projects, which raises the question of whether the staff have too many projects to be able to focus on initiatives that might have the greatest safety benefit. At its next meeting, the committee would like FRA staff to address the question of whether funds and staff time could be reserved in the budget for responding to unanticipated requests from the Office of Safety and RSAC. Having such funds available might avoid the need to delay or eliminate other, already established priorities.

Cost sharing has clear advantages. When multiple parties contribute, there is a stronger sense of shared purpose. Moreover, the funds of both the public and the private sectors can be stretched further. There is a long tradition of cost sharing in railroad research and testing in the United States. For over 15 years, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) has operated the publicly owned test facility and track in Pueblo, Colorado, an arrangement that makes sense in the highly capital-intensive railroad development business. This is a particular advantage for the public sector because it provides an opportunity to test new technologies on an instrumented track with instrumented vehicles, such as the high-speed trainsets purchased by Amtrak, to determine whether they perform as designed within safety parameters.

After managing the Pueblo facility directly for 15 years, AAR recently created a subsidiary¾ TTCI¾ to manage it. The President of TTCI, Roy A. Allen, formerly Vice President of Research and Test for AAR, explained to the committee the cost sharing implicit in the management of the Pueblo facility. In addition, he conveyed the considerable complementarity between the R&D programs of industry and FRA. The committee views this as an exemplary model for public-private R&D partnerships.

FRA staff presented a draft report that details the degree of cost sharing in the major program areas of both the R&D and NGHSR programs. In an important program area, such as track, structures, and train control, nearly half of the cost is shared by the private sector. This is a laudable achievement. With regard to the question of whether there is an appropriate balance of federal, state, and private-sector input and cost sharing, however, the committee’s initial assessment is that an excessive emphasis on cost sharing may not be the way to shape a safety research program, especially when those being asked to share costs may also be subject to the resultant safety requirements and have to bear associated implementation costs. For those R&D activities related more to product development, such as measuring devices, cost sharing may well be more appropriate. The committee will continue to explore this issue in subsequent meetings in order to address the question of the appropriate balance for cost sharing.

The committee recommends that in the development of an overall R&D program rationale and priority-setting process, FRA identify criteria for determining the types of projects for which cost sharing would be appropriate and desirable, with particular emphasis on the implications of cost-sharing requirements for safety-related research projects.

FRA staff presented the committee with a rather extensive and detailed 5-year strategic R&D plan. The committee’s reaction to this plan is much the same as its reaction to the overall program design and the process for selecting research projects. Whereas the plan undoubtedly includes many appropriate projects and initiatives, it does not in itself convey a clear set of priorities or explain the expected safety benefits of individual initiatives.

In addition to exploring the possibility of developing a more explicit safety rationale for individual program elements, FRA staff could make more explicit the projects being undertaken by its internal and external customers for specific rulemaking initiatives. The committee will continue to review FRA’s R&D activities in the context of the agency’s strategic plan.

As noted earlier, the committee has been asked to evaluate whether establishment of a Railroad Safety Institute is of critical importance, and whether such an institute would be duplicative of current research efforts. FRA has been preparing an analysis of this congressional suggestion and will issue a report in the near future. The committee awaits the availability of this report, and anticipates being able to address this issue at its next meeting and in its next letter report.

As discussed earlier, the Office of R&D must respond to requests from the Office of Safety and RSAC. Grady Cothen, Deputy Associate Administrator for Safety Standards and Program Development, made clear to the committee the close working relationship between his office and the Office of R&D. In addition, one of the members of the committee, Ronald Markon, is also a member of RSAC, and he offered similar positive comments about the responsiveness of R&D staff to requests from RSAC. As suggested above, however, these requests tend to be at a rather detailed level, perhaps related to a particular accident or some critical situation. Not all such requests are of equal importance, and some may not prove to be of lasting significance. The committee’s recommendation with regard to setting priorities on the basis of explicit analysis of safety significance and potential safety benefits could also be helpful for balancing priorities in serving these customers.

In examining the relationship between safety regulation and the implementation of HSR technology, the earlier NRC committee made specific recommendations to FRA concerning the safety regulatory process, in particular that the process should evolve to the establishment of performance-related regulations. The Safety Assurance and Compliance Program, through which a systemwide safety review of an entire railroad is undertaken, is a step in this direction. Such a change in the regulatory process would significantly alter the type of support the Office of Safety would require from the R&D program. Initially, for example, the Office of R&D could support the safety mission by conducting research on the management of the safety regulatory process and how such an evolution could be undertaken. Once the process had evolved, support for the Office of Safety could be focused more on the risk assessment methodologies FRA has begun to explore in its R&D program.

The FRA staff provided an update on the Illinois PTC project. The earlier committee suggested that the introduction of train control technologies is essential if incremental high-speed passenger rail is to go forward on track shared with freight railroads. This requirement obtains for two reasons: (a) it is mandated by safety regulation for speeds in excess of 79 mph, and (b) it is necessary for the management of capacity, which is increasingly scarce in many important corridors.

The FRA staff, along with Roy A. Allen of TTCI, gave a very positive report on this project. It appears that the owner of the track, Union Pacific Railroad, is committed to proceeding with a train control project. Moreover, the industry as a whole, acting through AAR, has committed to providing $20 million for the project over the next 4 years and has devoted key staff to manage the project through TTCI.

The specifics of the project will be developed over the course of the next few months. Thus some of the committee’s questions about the project could not yet be answered, such as whether the overall funding will be sufficient, whether the technology to be developed will be truly interoperable at an affordable cost, whether a system with potential nationwide benefit will be developed, and how policies will be determined in this public-private partnership. The committee requested a copy of the memorandum of understanding being developed by the parties, which FRA staff agreed to provide once full agreement has been reached.

Interoperability among various PTC systems requires commonality at some level. Previous attempts at specifying commonality, such as the Advanced Train Control System (ATCS) project, have tried to express it in terms of the operating procedures and practices of all the participating railroads. This has proved a complicated undertaking, particularly in reconciling the differences in communication infrastructure between the eastern and western railroads. The lack of success with this approach in the past has engendered skepticism among many in the industry that such attempts will ever be successful.

In proceeding with the Illinois PTC project, the committee encourages FRA, as one partner in the project, to be mindful of the importance of developing a system that would have nationwide benefit. Such a system should be interoperable at an affordable cost to the railroads. Recognition should be given to the fact that affordability to the railroads will be determined by all the potential benefits (economic as well as safety) that may be provided by the system. Achieving nationwide benefit should be the explicit goal of FRA.


Differential Global Positioning System (GPS)
FRA staff gave a presentation on the USDOT program to develop a Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS) by converting unused Air Force navigation stations to serve as inland carriers of GPS signals. FRA is a participant in this program, along with several other modal administrations within USDOT and other federal agencies. The proposal is innovative and may be very cost-effective. The committee raised a number of issues related to this program and its potential application to PTC, which should be discussed in more detail at the next meeting.

Grade Crossing Safety
More individuals are killed each year in collisions at grade crossings than in all other kinds of railroad accidents combined. The FRA staff described the agency’s grade crossing initiatives in both the R&D program of the Office of R&D and the NGHSR program. They also described related initiatives of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office and interests of agencies such as the Federal Transit Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Federal Highway Administration. At a future meeting, the committee would like to be briefed on the scale and scope of these various activities in order to better understand how they are integrated and how decisions about direction and priority are reached, as well as on the extent and formality of FRA’s leadership role in these activities.

Although the committee is not required to submit its next letter report until May 1, 1999, an interim meeting is planned for the fall of this year to allow for a more detailed review of some of the R&D program elements and to address with FRA staff some of the issues raised in this letter.

Once again, the committee appreciates the cooperation of the FRA staff in support of this important project.

Sincerely yours,

Joseph M. Sussman
Chair, Committee for Review of the Federal Railroad Administration R&D Program


cc:  The Honorable Ted Stevens
      The Honorable Robert C. Byrd
      The Honorable Richard S. Shelby
      The Honorable Frank R. Lautenberg
      The Honorable Bob Livingston
      The Honorable David R. Obey
      The Honorable Frank R. Wolf
      The Honorable Martin Sabo

* As is standard policy for NRC committees, the members of this committee met 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 two FRA-related activities.

First, FRA funds a research program from its NGHSR 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 NRC. 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 is provided by FRA at a level of about $500,000 annually. An additional $500,000 was provided from FY 1997 funds for an HSR IDEA program that will solicit innovations for non-ITS technologies related to HSR safety. The total funding provided to TRB in FY 1997 was thus $1 million, which represents about 3.5 percent of the HSR R&D expenditures. 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, the U.S. Department of Transportation has a standing arrangement to fund research projects at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through a Basic Ordering Agreement (BOA). In a project expected through this BOA, my colleagues and I will develop an analytic procedure for risk assessment, which could have application in future FRA safety regulatory analyses. This $100,000 project is to be completed by June 1998 and may be renewed. In addition, Dr. Alan Bing’s employer has two contracts with FRA in high-speed rail vehicle crashworthiness and one in finite element analysis of crashes, with which Bing has only peripheral involvement.