IT is nearly two years since the Biden administration’s signature Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law, yet very little of the $US 102bn allocated to rail and public transport has been provided. As the clock continues to tick on the five-year programme, the sector is understandably nervous of losing the promised funding.
Speaking to a packed room at Railway Interchange, Mr Amit Bose, the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) administrator, the top civil servant dealing with railways in the United States, attempted to ease concerns.
The act allocates $US 66bn for rail plus $US 36bn for public transport. Bose described it as “unquestionably a once in a generation opportunity to invest in rail.” Yet he admitted the FRA has faced big challenges with the programme.
“The FRA, on our rail development side, did not have a robust staff or a strong office in place for a $US 66bn programme in 2021,” Bose said. “We needed to make sure that the office is structured in such a way to administer that huge level of funding and also staffed at the level to administer that funding.
“It is not just the FRA, it is also Amtrak that needs to be ready for that funding, and also that the states, through their state departments of transportation, state transit agencies, are ready to deliver those projects as well. We’ve been laying the groundwork for that.”
“We’re going to release and award even more billions of dollars in funding before the end of the year.”
Bose said that funding has already appeared in the form of a $US 570m level crossing elimination programme that is supporting “many projects” across the country. The Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (Crisi) grants programme also confirmed funding for 70 projects in 35 states in September.
“We’re going to release and award even more billions of dollars in funding before the end of the year,” Bose said, highlighting forthcoming calls for applications for the next round of the level crossing elimination programme and Crisi.
“The big ones are the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Rail for the Northeast Corridor, which is $US 9.5bn roughly, and after that the Federal-State Partnership for the national network, which is $US 4.5bn. What we have done is combine a couple of years, so it is not just one fiscal year.”
Turning to how the industry can help itself to secure funding, Bose encouraged the sector to identify projects that are ready for construction, have the necessary planning permission and where the environmental impact assessment process has been completed.
“I think what would be helpful for me is to show the public, especially Congress, how you all are benefiting from the dollars,” Bose said. “There are stringent Buy American requirements in the Infrastructure Bill, so there are a lot of opportunities.”
Bose also urged the industry to take advantage of the Department of Transportation’s new Project Delivery Centre of Excellence at the Volpe Centre, which is sharing lessons learned and project best practice in order to optimise delivery. “It is also important to show that the projects are on time and on budget,” he said. “We’re very, very focused on that.”
The debate over the safety of North America’s railway network entered the public sphere following the tragic accident at East Palestine, Ohio, in February. These concerns were also front and centre at Railway Interchange, with the supply sector keen to showcase technologies to enhance safety, and conference sessions regularly reflecting on the political fallout from the derailment.
Bose said that the incident changed things “in a significant way” and that a return to the status quo, “as advocated by many within the industry,” is not possible. He urged the industry to “step up” and also for Congress to do its part by looking at possible legislation.
“It is no longer as simple as a federal agency seeing a need for safety and then writing the rules,” Bose said. “There need to be additional layers for that rule so they are not struck down by the courts.”
Bose added that the FRA is attempting to reassure the public that rail is safe, including by conducting an assessment of the industry’s approach to safety. He said that work at Norfolk Southern (NS), the railway involved in the East Palestine accident, is complete and that assessment of the remaining Class 1s is underway. He also confirmed that the programme will be extended to Amtrak and the commuter railways.
Early findings from this work highlighted by Bose include issues that the railways are having with recruiting and training staff to a sufficient level following a loss of experienced employees in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. He said the FRA is working with them to bolster their training programmes.
He added that the FRA is a major advocate for the adoption of new technologies that will improve safety. The administration has come under fire for blocking the use by Class 1 freight railways of autonomous track inspection technology, including notable cases at NS and BNSF, with the latter starting litigation against the government.
While not wanting to be drawn into a debate on a legal issue, Bose struck back at accusations that he is personally blocking the adoption of new technology. He pointed out that in most cases the Class 1s are the owners of their right of way and do not require waivers to deploy this type of technology. “I want to make sure that they understand their claim,” Bose said. “This is technology they can use on their own right of way, within certain limits. They don’t require FRA action.”
He also pointed out the relative lack of development in braking technology, an area where he feels significant advances could still be made, and encouraged the sector to pursue zero-emissions traction or risk falling behind their competitors in the trucking industry, which he said is embracing green technology.
Where federal government intervention has had a positive impact according to Bose is the mandatory nationwide adoption of Positive Train Control (PTC) under the Rail Safety Improvement Act. He said that Class 1s are beginning to use this signalling system as a wider platform for technological advancement, something that he, and the FRA, support.
“We’ll continue to play that role in pushing for advancements in rail technology,” he said.