Is USDOT about to stop the growth of commuter rail?

It's much too soon to panic, but I did send this inquiry to the US Federal Railroad Administration.

Dear FRA,

Your 4/9 press release says:  "WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) today announced its intention to issue a proposed rule requiring two-person train crews on crude oil trains and establishing minimum crew size standards for most main line freight and passenger rail operations."  The rest of the press release is about the safety risks of big oil trains, which gives the appearance that this reference to passenger rail was added at the last minute.
The language creates a reasonable suspicion you are about to ban one-person crews on urban commuter rail services regulated by the FRA, which usually fall within FRA's use of the term "passenger rail".  While the text is unclear about what "minimum crew size" standard it proposes for "passenger rail", it makes no sense that you would need to "establish minimum crew size standards" if the intended minimum were 1.  
Your release mentions later that the rule is expected to contain "appropriate exceptions."  It would be wise to give the transit and urban development worlds some assurance that you don't plan to shut down the possibility of one-person-crew urban transit — using FRA-regulated rail corridors — through this rule.  Such services — similar to existing commuter rail but with higher frequency and smaller vehicles — are one of the best hopes for cost-effective new rail transit in the US.

Thank you!

Jarrett Walker
Jarrett Walker + Associates
"Let's think about transit"


6 Responses to Is USDOT about to stop the growth of commuter rail?

  1. Robert Madison April 12, 2014 at 9:10 am #

    I’m thinking you are misreading what’s going on. First off, FRA does not have authority over most urban transit rail (i.e. the kind that would operate with one-person crews). That is generally under the FTA. Second, I’m not aware of any FRA-regulated passenger rail that doesn’t already have a minimum of two crew (one engineer and at least one conductor). If anything, all this says is “don’t even think about going down to one-man crews on those trains” which is probably a good idea anyway.

  2. Jarrett April 12, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    Robert A great deal of suburban commuter rail potentially shares tracks with freight and comes partly under FRA jurisdiction.

  3. david vartanoff April 12, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    Unfortunately FRA has authority over PATH which has every attribute of an urban mass transit subway but a long time ago had a physical connection to the national rail network. As they run trains with cars very much like CTA L equipment they might well otherwise be a candidate for OPTO.

  4. Robert April 12, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

    I reread the note and realized I misinterpreted the point you were making. Nonetheless, it remains that most urban rail services do not fall under the FRA’s jurisdiction, and commuter rail that does probably should have at least two crew members.
    I think a better push would be to get certain systems (such as PATH) out of the FRA’s regulatory reach, but when it comes to “big rail” systems, I think it would be wise to keep a minimum two-person crew.

  5. nbluth April 14, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    Nearly every other developed country in the world runs commuter rail lines with one-person crews; commuter rail lines that operate far more efficiently and carry far more passengers than U.S. commuter rail. Why is it ‘wise’ to keep two-person crews when international best-practices call for one, which allows for lower operating costs, expanded service and higher ridership. The only explanation I can think of is that you consider Americans so uniquely inept at operating public transportation that we need twice the staffing as do other developed countries. I wouldn’t disagree with you there.

  6. Jim D. April 16, 2014 at 6:05 am #

    Robert, the issue is not a simple requirement for a two-person train crew – many U.S. commuter rail trains have crews of three people or more when you count the conductor and assistant conductor(s). The issue is that the FRA is calling for two crew members to be stationed in the cab. This seems like a false solution. North American passenger trains have been operated safely for millions of miles with a single crew member in the cab, and accidents did occur in the past when multiple crew members were stationed on the locomotive.
    And nbluth – ineptness is not the issue, organized labor and politics is. I suspect the number of employees required by any given agency correlates closely to the strength of the union that represents those employees. Some newer rail transit systems in the U.S. do operate with single-person crews and proof-of-payment fare systems.