CTS Publications

By: Dr. Harvey A. Levine, Director, Crossing to Safety®

The close relationship between the current Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), United States Department of Transportation (DOT), and a lobbyist for the Union Pacific Railroad (UPR) has been under scrutiny since reported in the New York Times. Even if inappropriate railroad influence is not found to be present from this relationship, I am disturbed about a somewhat related, but more fundamental issue regarding the Administrator’s position – that is, the dubious qualifications of the more recent Administrators, as demonstrated by a very pronounced trend. For while the process of selecting heads of public agencies reeks with political influence and subjectivity, one would hope that when it comes to matters of safety – such as with the Administrator’s position – that the public good trumps cronyism. The Administrator not only makes ultimate decisions on matters of railroad-safety that affect all of our lives, it is a position that should be respected by FRA personnel, the railroad industry, Congress, and ultimately, the general public.

There have been 11 Administrators since DOT was created in 1966. The first three (A. Sheffer Lang, Reginald N. Whitman, and John Ingram) came out of the railroad industry and had experience in engineering and/or railroad operations. Although these Administrators may have had a railroad bias, their appointments could be justified on the basis of the newness of the federal agency and the need for experienced personnel. Not surprisingly, all three went back to the railroad industry after their FRA stints, with two becoming railroad presidents. They were followed by two Administrators that did not have hands-on railroad experience (Asaph H. Hall and John M. Sullivan). However, both of these men were professional engineers with sound credentials, and who could well be expected to understand the technicalities of railroad operations and safety issues.
Things began to change in 1981 with the appointment of a lawyer (Robert W. Blanchette) as the Administrator. Mr. Blanchette had railroad experience as a trustee for the bankrupt Penn Central and had practiced transportation law for a number of years. He was followed by another attorney (John Riley), who had worked for a United States Congressional committee that was responsible for aspects of transportation, including the railroad industry. After leaving FRA, Mr. Blanchette became a vice president of the railroad’s trade association – the Association of American Railroads -- while Mr. Riley, who was in poor health, returned to his home State of Minnesota.

The sea change in the backgrounds of Administrators began in 1989 when it appeared that political connectivity had become the prime criteria for the position. Under the two Republican administrations, the States of Mississippi (Senator Trent Lott) and Texas (George W. Bush) have provided three of the past four Administrators. In the one other case (a Democrat administration), Ohio (Senator Howard Metzenbaum) was the State of choice.

As shown below, the latest four Administrators have had no engineering, railroad, safety, and/or legal expertise or experience. Gilbert Carmichael owned automobile dealerships in Mississippi, was active in real-estate development, ran for public office,

Car Dealer
Education, Public Admin.
Public Admin.
Public Admin., Lobbyist

and served on several transportation committees. Jolene Molitoris was a teacher and public administrator with experience at the Ohio Railroad Transportation Authority – a State promotional agency. Allan Rutter was a budget analyst and public administrator, and served as Director of Transportation Policy in the Texas Governor’s Office. And Betty Monro served in various legislative (Mississippi) and public administrative positions, including the Director of Legislation for the Air Transport Association of America.

FRA is responsible for promulgating and enforcing railroad safety regulations that affect the lives not only of railroad personnel and passengers, but also of people living nearby, and crossing, railroad track. While these safety regulations have economic (cost-benefit analyses) and legal implications (interpretations and enforcement), they are steeped in railroad operating practices that require detailed technical understanding. What does it say about this country’s commitment to railroad safety when FRA administrators are appointed without adequate experience in, and/or knowledge of, the field they are to regulate? A simply past connection to some form of transportation is not a substitute for expertise in railroad safety. A college degree in education, liberal arts, business, or public administration is not a substitute for engineering knowledge. And managerial know-how is not a substitute for an understanding of railroad safety policies, practices and procedures.

Unqualified, insecure and weak FRA Administrators are vulnerable to becoming captives of the very industry they are entrusted to regulate. Its bad enough that the railroads and FRA share the same data, serve on the same committees, attend many of the same meetings, and partner in the same projects; having an overly impressionable FRA Administrator compounds the relationship. The chumminess of the railroad industry with FRA could go from symbiotic to incestuous. It may well be on the way. At the root of the problem is the downgrading of the Administrator’s qualifications. This troublesome trend should be immediately reversed.



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