2101 Constitution Avenue Washington, D.C. 20418

Office Location
2001 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C.

Telephone: (202) 334-2934
Telex: 248664 NASWUR
Telefax: (202) 334-2003

January 25, 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 second meeting in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, Colorado, on October 23- 24, 1998. The purpose of this meeting was to provide the committee members with a first-hand review of the FRA-sponsored research being conducted at the Transportation Technology Center (TTC)1, as well as the FRA- TTCI cooperative research projects currently under way. Because FRA has a substantial investment in TTC and continues to support the TTC research facilities, it was useful for the committee members to gain an appreciation for how these facilities are used in FRA's R&D program. A second purpose of this meeting was to review a draft report on a proposed project selection process for FRA's R&D program.

The enclosed committee roster indicates the members who attended the meeting*. Following an open session with FRA and TTCI staff, the committee met in a closed session to deliberate on the information presented and to develop this report.

On behalf of the committee, I want to thank James McQueen, Steven Ditmeyer, Claire Orth, Magdy El-Sibaie, and Steven Sill of FRA for participating in the meeting; coordinating the facilities tour and meeting presentations with TTCI staff; and providing the committee with information on FRA research under way, program updates, and plans for fiscal year 1999.

Although the committee is not contractually required to submit a letter report to FRA at this time, we wish to comment on two specific and closely related issues in response to the material FRA staff prepared for this meeting on the proposed project selection process.

R&D Program Development Process and Project Selection

In response to the committee's letter report of April 30, 1998, the FRA R&D staff, with the support of the Volpe Center, has begun developing a more formal analytic process to support the selection, definition, and design of projects; resource allocation; and project prioritization. The committee appreciates FRA's responsiveness in undertaking this effort and the substantial work involved. Some interesting ideas have been developed, and we understand the complexities of developing an analytic process. Building on the work done to date by FRA and Volpe on the draft report, as presented to the committee by Robert Ricci of Volpe, we would like to offer the following observations.

The committee is pleased that the proposed process strengthens the tie to FRA's safety goals, but remains concerned that those goals have a variety of origins, including political considerations. Moreover, the committee believes there should be an analytic rationale as the foundation for the R&D program. The starting point for the development of such a rationale could be identifying the greatest sources of risk, using global risk assessment as an approach to system safety management.

Risk assessment is used as a matter of course by many other regulatory bodies including the Federal Aviation Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, and others for both the development of safety-critical systems and as part of the process of developing regulations. It is also used by military contractors in the development of safety-critical systems for defense vehicles such as aircraft and submarines. Risk assessment is a generic term that refers to the process of analyzing a system architecture, calculating the probability of errors or failures of system components, and then assembling the component risks to determine the probability of system failure. Other terms for the same concept include risk analysis and failure modes and effects analysis. Many different methodologies and analytic tools are developed and used for undertaking risk assessments. Until recently, the railroad industry has been a notable exception in its failure to use risk assessment in the development of safety-critical systems for operations.

FRA's own research related to the development of risk assessment methodologies provides examples of how the global risk assessment approach can be used. One such example is development of an analytic procedure for risk assessment of individual corridors to estimate the safety consequences of alternative train control technologies and varying traffic levels. Another is a passenger rail risk and cost/benefit analysis to assess the value of improving the crashworthiness of passenger equipment.

Risk assessment exposes hazards that might otherwise not receive the appropriate priority in safety management or in R&D. Following an objective look at all risks in a system, three questions must be addressed:

The risk assessment process would lead to a more proactive approach to the development of an R&D program and would serve as a screening mechanism for unanticipated requests for research projects that arise from the rule-making process or related safety concerns. In fact, a global risk assessment approach to rail system safety could serve as the intellectual underpinning for the methodology used to set a research agenda and for the establishment of performance-based safety standards.

Until the transition to a global risk assessment approach can be made, the proposed FRA process should be tested on either a group of existing projects or perhaps projects proposed for fiscal year 2000 to determine how effectively that process would allow for comparisons of projects and their relative resource allocations. However, the committee remains concerned that without a risk assessment approach, resources may not be allocated to high-priority safety issues.

Recommendation: The committee recommends that FRA take a global risk assessment approach to identifying the most serious hazards in the rail system in order to develop a strategic analytic framework for the R&D program, establish priorities relative to the seriousness of the risks involved, and map those priorities to projects that hold promise for improving safety.

Safety Regulatory Process as the Prime Driver of the R&D Agenda

Review of the proposed R&D selection process has brought the committee back to a fundamental observation made in our first letter report: the strategic directions required for the R&D program are tied directly to the safety regulatory process and the movement under way at FRA toward performance-based standards. A rational framework for development of a research agenda and performance-based safety standards are closely linked. Risk assessment reveals the greatest sources of risk, which can then serve as the basis for establishing R&D priorities and also lead to the development of performance measures.

The regulatory process impacts the implementation of new technology that results from research. Currently, when railroads use new technology for safety purposes, they are frequently forced to duplicate their efforts by also using old methods required by regulations (e.g., specifically required equipment inspections being used along with wayside detectors for faulty equipment). The committee concludes that implementation of new technology will be significantly facilitated by the evolution to performance-based safety standards. As stated in the committee's April 30, 1998, letter report:

In examining the relationship between safety regulation and the implementation of [high-speed rail] 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. Recommendation: The committee recommends that the Office of R&D support FRA's safety mission by initiating research on how to manage an evolution of the safety regulatory process from the existing standards based on engineering specifications to performance-based standards. The committee views this research itself as being of the highest priority to support the development of strategic directions for the FRA R&D program.

The committee looks forward to continuing a constructive relationship with the FRA R&D staff and to providing advice on strategic directions and appropriate goals for the R&D program. Specifically, the committee will be happy to provide guidance on the recommended evolution of the safety regulatory process and on the anticipated benefits of better understanding risks, implementing new technology, and improving safety performance.

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


1FRA owns the TTC and contracts for its operation and maintenance through an operating agreement with the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), a subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads.

* As is standard policy for NRC committees, the members of this committee meet in a closed 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 NRC. Funding is provided by FRA at a level of $1 million annually for a High-Speed Rail Innovations Deserving Exploratiory Analysis (HSR-IDEA) program that solicits innovations for technologies related to HSR safety and systems. (The $1 million provided to TRB for this program in FY 1997 represented 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 intelligent transportation systems (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 contracted through this BOA, Joseph Sussman and colleagues developed an analytic procedure for risk assessment, which could have application in future FRA safety regulatory analyses. A draft report for this $100,000 project was submitted to FRA in the summer of 1998 and is pending final acceptance by FRA; a contract renewal is also pending. In addition, Dr. Alan Bing's employer had two contracts with FRA in HSR vehicle crashworthiness and one in finite element analysis of crashes, with which Bing had only peripheral involvement. Bing has been leading an additional project for FRA, involving a benefit/cost analysis of crashworthiness improvements, funded for $105,000 and now close to completion. John Samuels is chairing the Positive Train Control (PTC) Management Committee for the Association of American Railroads/TTCI/FRA/Illinois DOT train control project, which is partially funded by the FRA Office of R&D and is being managed by TTCI staff with guidance from the management committee.

November 21, 1998

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

Dates of Attendance - October 23-24, 1998 Meeting


Dr. Joseph M. Sussman
JR East Professor and Professor
of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Ms. Anna M. Barry
Director of Railroad Operations
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority
Mr. Ronald G. Markon
General Chairman
International Brotherhood of Electrical
Workers System Council No. 16
Mr. John G. Bell
Program Director
High Speed Trainsets
National Railroad Passenger Corp.
Dr. John M. Samuels
Vice President
Operations Planning and Budget
Norfolk Southern Corporation
Dr. Alan J. Bing
Arthur D. Little, Inc
Dr. Nadine B. Sarter
Assistant Professor
University of Illinois at Urbana-
Champaign, Institute of Aviation
Dr. Sherwood C. Chu
Bethesda, MD
Mr. Thomas P. Schmidt
Vice President-Engineering
CSXT (J250)
Mr. Thomas M. Downs
Washington, D.C.
Mr. Louis S. Thompson
Railways Adviser
The World Bank
Mr. Nazih K. Haddad
Finance & System Development
High Speed Rail Program
Florida DOT

Mr. Warren D. Weber
Rail Program Manager
California Department of Transportation

Mr. William Weinstein
Principal Member of the
Technical Staff
The Charles Stark Draper
Laboratory, Inc.

Liaison Representative

Mr. Steven R. Ditmeyer
Director, Office of Research & Development
Federal Railroad Administration