|(The following on-the-record interview with FRA Administrator Joe Szabo appears in the July issue of Railway Age magazine. Szabo previously was UTU Illinois state legislative director.)
WASHINGTON -- Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo, a fifth-generation railroader, has been in the industry since age 18.
The former United Transportation Union Illinois State Legislative Director hired out on the Illinois Central in 1976 at his father’s suggestion to make money for college. He worked mostly as a conductor in Chicago commuter service, but spent some time in yard and over-the-road freight service.
His father, Joseph F. Szabo, was a switchman with the IC, and a UTU officer for 15 years as secretary-treasurer of Local 1299. In 1987, when the IC sold its commuter operation to Metra, the younger Szabo chose Metra. "I enjoyed the breaks working freight, but I preferred being with people and having reasonable control over my working hours."
RAILWAY AGE: Tell me about your union involvement.
JOE SZABO: When I was 14 and 15, I helped my father keep the books for UTU Local 1299. I was paying a lot of attention to what was going on in the union at that time. I signed on with the Illinois Central in 1976 and joined UTU Local 1290; I attended college part time. In 1984, the secretary-treasurer of Local 1290 retired, and some of the old heads said I should run for the job. I did and won. I had been involved in local politics in my home town of Riverdale, Ill., on the zoning board of appeals, and my parents were always involved in civic affairs -- a core value for me. In 1989, I ran for local legislative representative and was elected. The rest, as they say, is history.
RA: You bring practical railroad experience to the job. What does that mean for your perspective, how you run things?
JS: I would like to think that my life experiences would add a degree of credence to the position, and hopefully bring important insight to the FRA, not only having the hands-on experience, but the daily interaction with railroad employees, even as a union officer. I really do understand what happens out there.
RA: All the activity occurring in the rail industry -- high speed, PTC, ECP brakes, etc. -- what does it mean for the FRA, and for you?
JS: It’s incredibly exciting. There couldn't be a more exciting or challenging time taking over this agency, because it is a transformational period for the agency, as well as for the industry, and for the country. Inside the FRA, we've been mandated with more than a dozen rulemakings as part of the Rail Safety Improvement Act. That in itself would be a huge undertaking, if that was the only item on our agenda. But it's not. We’ve been handed a high-priority, high-profile project by the White House.
The president has said he wants to change the way Americans travel, and that passenger rail is going to be an integral part of that transformation, of balancing our transportation network. Hallelujah! It’s been so long overdue, and something that I believe has been simmering with the population, but hasn’t resonated with our political leadership. Now it has.
So, as an agency, we’ve been charged with executing the president’s vision, and with ensuring that he is successful with it. That's a culture change for America. Inside the FRA, it's a major change, because historically, this has been predominantly a safety agency. Statutorily, safety is the primary mission of the FRA.
Out of our 850 employees, about two-thirds are dedicated to the safety program, a good program that runs like a fine-tuned machine. But we’ve got this small, dedicated passenger rail section that suddenly has been thrown into the spotlight, given this presidential mandate --short timeline, failure is not an option.
So it's created tremendous stress for us. We’ve got to go through this transformation in our passenger rail section, beef up our resources, do additional hiring, and continue to grow the expertise to make sure we have the appropriate people on board to expeditiously review and approve the grant applications that are going to be coming in. We cannot fail, and one of the things that will lead to failure would be a lethargically slow process that frustrates the states.
RA: That’s one criticism that's been leveled in recent years -- that it takes the FRA too long to get anything done, whether it’s a RRIF loan approved or a rulemaking on a particular technology.
JS: There’s no question that criticism has been out there. One of the unfortunate parts of government is that, by nature, bureaucratic processes are slow. So, as we’ve been putting together our guidance for the passenger rail program, we’ve been looking at how we can break down many of those barriers. While balancing the need to ensure that risk is reduced and that projects are approved on a merit basis, we need to be as expeditious as possible. So we’re aware of the criticism and clearly trying to address it.
RA: The industry is still trying to get its arms around high speed. What are we talking about -- 200 mph dedicated lines, or 110-125 mph trains on existing freight rights-of-way?
JS: All of the above. Frankly, in my opinion, too much of the debate has been about speed, which is only a means to an end. That end, the important criteria, is reducing trip times. That's the only thing that matters -- making sure that trip times are competitive with or superior to other modes of travel, that they offer the level of convenience that the traveling public is looking for.
Equally important is reliability. To me, this whole debate has to be about trip times and reliability. Speed happens to be one tool that helps us achieve those goals. Yes, we are looking for 200 mph dedicated systems, but that doesn't mean that there also isn’t a very important role for 110-125 mph service.
I’ll give you an analogy. We've got a road system consisting of local streets, county and state and U.S. highways, and interstates. All interconnect with each other and are part of a comprehensive system. The same approach has to be taken with passenger rail, whether we're talking about commuter services, conventional 79 mph, emerging corridors with 110-125 mph services, or 200-mph high speed.
RA: Another criticism that’s been leveled at government is that there's no comprehensive transportation policy.
JS: I hope that becomes a part of the SAFETEA-LU reauthorization process. At FRA, we're willing to be helpful in that process -- that government does start viewing transportation from a broader perspective, rather than the traditional silos, regardless of whether we're talking about transporting goods or people.
RA: Positive Train Control: Freight railroads are understandably concerned about the cost and the 2015 implementation deadline, who will pay for installation and how much. Your thoughts?
JS: We’re working on the Subpart I rulemaking and are making sure that we get out information in a timely manner. In a broader sense, the industry has an opportunity here to change the dynamics, the relationships, particularly between Amtrak and the freight railroads. There's now money on the table to improve passenger operations. I think PTC presents some good opportunities for a win-win for freight and passenger.
RA: What can you tell me about FRA's R&D initiatives? Will more funding be available?
JS: This agency supports and will attempt to advance through our R&D department those technologies that improve the safety and efficiency of the industry. We clearly have an Administration that understands the role that rail freight and passenger can play in balancing our transportation network, and its advantages. So it’s my hope that, when it comes to our R&D side, there’s going to be support to allow us to continue to enhance rail's viability.
(The preceding interview with FRA Administrator Joe Szabo appears in the July issue of Railway Age magazine.)