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U.S. ECONOMY > American Industries > Transportation > Passenger Federal Railroad Administration: Executive Summary

Executive Summary

Five-Year Strategic Plan

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), at the request of the Senate Appropriations Committee, prepared this Five-Year Strategic Plan for Railroad Research, Development, and Demonstrations ("Five-Year Plan for RD&D"). It is being published at a time of rapid changes in technology and in the structure and nature of the railroad industry. The Five-Year Plan for RD&D includes projects funded under three programs:

The Railroad Research and Development Program includes ten program elements as follows: railroad system issues (safety, security, environment), human factors, rolling stock and components, track and structures, track/train interaction, train control, grade crossings, hazardous materials, train occupant protection, and R&D facilities and equipment.

The Next Generation Technology Demonstration Program includes four program elements: train control demonstrations, high-speed non-electric locomotives, high-speed grade crossing protection, and track and structures technology.

The Magnetic Levitation Technology Deployment Program has initiated a competition to plan and demonstrate a magnetic levitation (maglev) transportation system to demonstrate the technology in revenue service in the United States. (The sequence of the programs, and of the program elements within the programs, used in this report does not represent a prioritization of the programs or the program elements.)

Elements for these programs were developed based on historical risk and accident analysis, strategic review of industry trends, and a review of current research, development, and demonstration projects promising significant results. Goals, and activities for achieving the goals, were established around each of these areas.


In 2000, the entire United States railroad system encompassed 660 railroads, 220,000 miles of track, 20,000 freight locomotives, 8,800 passenger locomotives/coaches, 1,300,000 freight cars, and 265,000 employees. The freight railroad industry's share of the ton-miles of intercity freight grew from less than 38 percent in 1990 to more than 40 percent today. The demands on this system are continuously growing, and changing technologies provide the opportunity to improve system effectiveness and efficiency. For the first time since World War II, some railroads have capacity constraints on certain lines. Meanwhile, Amtrak, the intercity passenger railroad, has invested in electrification between Boston and New Haven and new, electrified Acela Express trainsets that provide service at speeds up to 150 miles per hour on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston.

For railroad safety, the number of casualties decreased from 20,400 in 1993 to 12,580 in 2000. During the same period, fatalities declined from 1,279 to 937 and the number of injuries fell from 19,121 to 11,643. Of the total number of reported railroad incidents in 2000, 38 percent were ascribed to human factors causes, 36 percent to track defects, 12 percent to equipment failures, 2 percent to signals, and 12 percent to miscellaneous causes. These percentages were virtually unchanged over the past five years.


The highest priority of the FRA is the safety of the railroad system. Despite the improvement in railroad safety, there are still too many railroad accidents of all types. With a goal of significantly reducing accidents and casualties, the FRA is aiming its research activities at addressing safety issues in each and every technological area that can reduce both the probability of and severity of accidents. The FRA addresses safety concerns in all phases of railroad operations-through research, development, and demonstrations; regulation and enforcement activities, and financial assistance-to ensure that railroads in the United States continue to be among the safest in the world.

FRA's Five-Year RD&D Plan reinforces activities addressing the need for a strategic approach to railroad research and technology. Strategic plans prepared by the National Science and Technology Council, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and FRA established the foundation for the development of this Five-Year RD&D Plan. These strategic plans are the product of extensive industry and government coordination and consultation.

Digital communication technologies are revolutionizing not only the telecommunications industry, but the railroad industry as well. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) for highways and mass transit are based on these technologies, as are the new air traffic control and maritime vessel tracking systems. The military services, the major parcel delivery companies, pipeline operators, and police, fire, and ambulance services also use these technologies. The FRA and the railroad industry are working on the development of Intelligent Railroad Systems that would incorporate the new digital communications technologies into train control, braking systems, grade crossings, defect detection, and into planning and scheduling systems as well. Intelligent Railroad Systems will improve the safety, security, and efficiency of freight, intercity passenger, and commuter railroads. Work on certain of the components for which Federal support is deemed appropriate will be carried out under this Plan.

At the request of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, the FRA contracted with the Transportation Research Board (TRB) to establish a committee to conduct a peer review of both the R&D and Next Generation Programs. This committee includes representatives of the various States, railroads, labor unions, universities, financial institutions, and research organizations. At the urging of this committee, FRA has developed a structured process to identify safety research areas and select specific safety R&D projects for funding. The approach consists of five logical steps that have been applied to the Grade Crossing and Track and Structures R&D program elements and are reflected in this Five-Year RD&D Plan. The steps are as follows:

  • Review of historical and potential risk in the railroad industry.
  • Conduct failure analysis.
  • Survey government and industry countermeasures and R&D requirements.
  • Develop and rate individual projects.
  • Select projects and assign to program areas.

Subsequently, as new information becomes available about sources of safety hazards, the logical steps may be followed for especific types of safety hazards to add to the list of potential safety R&D projects.

The FRA manages the programs described in this Five-Year RD&D Plan with a small staff of program managers. Some of the research and development is carried out at FRA's Transportation Technology Center (TTC) near Pueblo, Colorado; some is carried out or administered by the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The remainder is carried out through grants, cooperative agreements, and competitively awarded contracts with universities, railroads, railroad suppliers, consulting engineers, government agencies, national laboratories, and other organizations with appropriate technical expertise. The Next Generation High-Speed Rail Technology Demonstration Program relies upon cooperative agreements with States and manufacturers to execute the various demonstration projects. The Maglev Technology Deployment Program is a cooperative effort with cost sharing from State or regional authorities and private sector participants.

FRA's Office of R&D conducted a managerial self-assessment in July 2000, using the seven Baldrige Award criteria: leadership, strategic planning, customer and market focus, information and analysis, human resources focus, process management, and business results. It graded itself relatively high in the categories of organizational leadership, strategy development and deployment, customer and market knowledge, work systems, employee well being and satisfaction, and supplier and partnership processes. Categories calling for improvement were customer satisfaction and relationships, measurements of organization performance, employee education, product and service processes, and support processes. FRA's Office of R&D will continue to use the Baldrige Award criteria for self-assessment as an integral part of its planning process.

FRA recognizes the importance of strategic workforce planning to ensure that the human resources are available to accomplish the mission of this Five-Year RD&D Plan. FRA is undertaking a seven-step strategic workforce planning process for the Office of Research and Development:

  • Build leadership commitment.
  • Develop a profile of current projects and workforce.
  • Link the project base to strategic goals.
  • Collect data on future resource requirements.
  • Identify workforce-planning objectives.
  • Evaluate workforce planning process and results.
  • Revise process/results based on findings.

The strategic goals and the strategies laid out in this workforce plan will provide the guidance needed to permit the development of a coherent and compatible plan to retain, hire, and develop the necessary workforce.


FRA's R&D Program primarily supports FRA's safety regulatory processes, but also provides support to railroads involved in the transportation of freight, intercity passengers, and commuters; railroad employees and their labor organizations; and railroad suppliers. The FRA-owned Transportation Technology Center (TTC) near Pueblo, Colorado provides the infrastructure necessary to conduct experiments and to test theories, concepts, and other technologies in support of the R&D program. The TTC is built on land leased from the State of Colorado and is operated under contract by Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads (AAR). The FRA, other government agencies, the railroad industry, individual railroads, transit operators, suppliers, and foreign organizations, all use TTC.

Railroad safety depends on the reliability of people, as well as infrastructure, equipment, and control systems. Railroading is known to operate in a hostile, unforgiving physical environment. Railroad operating workers need knowledge, training, tools, and alertness to do their jobs properly and insure the public's as well as their own and their coworkers' safety. Railroad infrastructure has many elements, including soil in embankments, ballast, ties, rail, rail fastening devices, turnouts, bridges, and tunnels, that must be properly designed, installed, used, maintained, inspected and secured if railroads are to be operated safely.

Similarly, railroad equipment has many components, including wheels, bearings, axles, trucks, springs, brakes (both air, and the new electronically-controlled), under-frames, draft gear, and couplers. All components must also be properly designed, installed, used, maintained, and inspected if railroads are to be operated safely. Train control systems, which have historically been very reliable but still enable a human being to make a mistake and cause an accident, need to be upgraded to prevent the possibility of human error from causing accidents.

Rail transportation of passengers and hazardous materials present situations that require special attention to insure that a high level of safety and security is maintained. Perhaps the greatest safety risk of all for railroads occurs at those locations where railroads intersect with streets and highways. All these topics receive specific attention in this Five-year R&D plan, which addresses these issues through an appropriate combination of study, analysis, simulation, laboratory testing, and field-testing.

The Railroad System Issues program element addresses: (a) contextual research on technological and operational developments within the railroad industry that may influence the need for safety R&D; (b) system safety issues for freight, commuter, intercity passenger, and high-speed passenger railroads, including performance-based regulations; (c) physical and cyber security in the railroad system; and (d) environmental issues related to railroad operations. This program element undertakes research intended to enhance railroad safety from a system perspective, especially for issues and topics not covered by traditional equipment or track-related research initiatives. The physical vulnerability of the U.S. railroad network is of concern, especially in light of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001.

The Human Factors program element addresses railroad accidents in two primary areas: Operating Practices and Grade Crossings. Operating practices projects target human factors accidents in yards and terminals and in mainline train operations. Human factors-related grade crossing projects address issues regarding motor vehicle drivers, visual and audio warnings, and crossing gate and light technology to reduce accidents. The human factors program element also provides analytical and technical support to reduce the number of accidents, deaths, and injuries due to human error, and to reduce the rate of railroad employee-on-duty fatalities, injuries and illnesses. The human factors program element uses the "human-centered systems" approach that focuses on human capabilities and limitations with respect to human/system interfaces, operations and system integration. Increased attention to human performance and behavior will reduce crashes, loss of life, injuries, property damage and resultant personal and financial costs.

The Rolling Stock and Components program element places emphasis on the development and improvement of equipment defect detection and control via wayside and onboard detection. Such systems promote early defect detection and help prevent derailments due to equipment failure. This program element focuses on a proactive approach to preventing derailments, equipment failure, and undesired emergency brake applications. This approach will involve risk assessment and mitigation, along with support for safety assurance. This program element is expected to fulfill the demands of faster, heavier, and longer trains by extending equipment and material life through early defect detection and advanced material development.

The Track and Structures program element provides the analytical and technical basis for the development of safety standards and best industry maintenance, inspection, and operating practices to reduce accidents, deaths, injuries, and property damage related to track and other infrastructure failures. The program will improve analytical and experimental procedures for better understanding the mechanism of fracture development in rail steel under passing loads, improved nondestructive (field) test methods for detecting flaws in rail steel, and improved methods for determining when track is at risk of sudden lateral buckling or of pulling apart from rail longitudinal forces induced by seasonal temperature changes or by tractive or braking forces. The program also addresses advanced inspection technologies to detect track hazards (track bed weakness, wide gage, faulty geometry) well before accidents can occur and the safe load capacity and structural integrity of bridges. Research results are incorporated into FRA Track Safety Standards and railroad maintenance practices. Activities in this program element are coordinated with and complement the Track and Structures demonstration activities in the Next Generation High-Speed Rail Program.

The Track/Train Interaction program element addresses the safety implications arising from the dynamic interaction between track and train. The program will: (a) improve analytical and experimental methods for assessing derailment risk due to anomalous interactions of track geometry and railcar suspension systems; (b) provide improved guidelines for rail grinding or lubrication that will facilitate optimum wheel-rail contact and truck steering in heavy load and high-speed situations; and (c) develop a comprehensive computer program for modeling and simulating railway vehicle/track systems, with an emphasis on the dynamic performance of both vehicle and track and their interactions through the wheel/rail interface. The program supports the development of performance-based standards and guidelines for vehicle/track interaction safety and ride quality, and of safety standards and guidelines for transverse wheel and rail profiles.

The Train Control program element engages in four types of activities regarding train control: facilitation, risk analysis, testing and evaluation, and development of support systems. To facilitate the deployment of Positive Train Control (PTC) on the nation's railroads, the FRA is serving as lead agency within the USDOT for determining the requirements, requesting funding, and managing the implementation, operation, and maintenance of Nationwide Differential GPS. FRA is undertaking the analyses to evaluate the risks of collisions and overspeed accidents on the corridors that make up the national railroad network, as well as to evaluate the risks of the various technologies that comprise PTC. FRA will undertake the necessary testing and evaluation to confirm the integrity of the various PTC demonstration programs when they become operational, and will establish facilities where further testing and evaluation can be carried out. Activities in this program element are coordinated with and complement the train control demonstration activities in the Next Generation High-Speed Rail Program.

The Grade Crossings program element focuses on technical aspects of the highway-railroad intersection. (Human factors aspects of grade crossings are addressed in the Human Factors program element.) This program element addresses evaluation methodologies, visual and audio warnings, motor vehicle and train presence detection, crossing geometry, crossing gate and flashing light technologies, the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) prototype tests, and the development of standards under the National ITS Architecture. ITS offers the potential for deploying low-cost innovative warning systems that may have greater effectiveness than passive warning devices. The risks posed to both highway and rail users have been examined in new risk assessment evaluations. These risk assessments are necessary to develop a more precise understanding of the risks posed by grade crossings and in evaluating proposals to decrease these risks. Research efforts are being coordinated with other Operating Administrations in USDOT, the TRB, and Transport Canada. Activities in this program element are also coordinated with the grade crossing demonstration activities in the Next Generation High-Speed Rail Program.

The Hazardous Materials program element includes projects to identify tank car operating and accident environments; to reduce multiple car derailments through the use of improved shelf couplers; to establish use and design parameters for 286,000 lb. gross-weight tank cars; and to prevent unwanted hazmat release due to incorrect relief device design, capacity, or/and setting. Other projects will evaluate and develop improved engineering design mathematical modeling and validation, develop effective inspection methods to ensure continued tank car integrity, including documented reliability and sensitivity for the methods used, and reduce the risk for emergency response personnel by validating damage assessment guidelines for accuracy, timeliness and applicability. Some of the results will provide the basis for FRA inspection and maintenance regulations.

The Train Occupant Protection program element carries out research on structural crashworthiness and interior safety of locomotives, and of intercity and commuter rail cars to improve the survivability of rail passengers and crew members in accidents. In addition, system safety and fire protection are addressed. Simulations, laboratory tests, and full-scale fire and impact tests are conducted. The goal of this research is to promote and improve the safety of intercity passenger and commuter rail services.

The R&D Facilities and Equipment program element addresses the acquisition, upgrading, and maintenance of FRA-owned facilities and equipment required to accomplish the whole spectrum of railroad research objectives. FRA's research and testing facilities are located at the 52-square mile TTC, which includes laboratories and 50 miles of test tracks for testing a wide range of locomotives, cars, and track structures and components for freight, passenger, transit, and high-speed rail operations.

In addition to the fixed facilities at TTC, the FRA owns and operates research cars to support the track research program. The T-16 is capable of collecting track geometry and ride quality data at high speeds, and the T-6 is equipped with the Gage Restraint Measurement System (GRMS) which measures the ability of track to maintain gage to preclude wide gage derailment.


The Next Generation High-Speed Rail Technology Demonstration Program ("Next Generation Program") seeks to demonstrate that the public will welcome incrementally upgraded high-speed rail passenger service which provides air- or road-competitive door-to-door trip times between major city pairs with reliable, high quality, cost-effective service.

The Next Generation Program-based on partnerships with suppliers of technology, railroads, and State governments-will be providing a real-world environment for the application of these technologies, preparing the way for a smooth introduction when States are ready to implement their systems, and ensuring that duplication of efforts is minimized. The States that are already implementing HSR incremental upgrade programs are targeting service speeds of 110 to 125 miles per hour for the near future, primarily on existing track also used for freight. The program includes four program elements: positive train control demonstrations, high-speed non-electric locomotive, high-speed grade crossing protection, and track and structures technology.

The Positive Train Control program element includes demonstrations of systems suited to maximizing the capacity of railroads to carry a mix of high-speed passenger, commuter, and freight trains with minimal risk of collision and at considerably lower cost than conventional railroad signal and control systems. The positive train control demonstration will result in validated, cost-effective technologies-coordinated with the freight railroad industry-which States will be able to select and implement on emerging high-speed corridors. The effectiveness of prospective train control systems must ultimately be demonstrated over entire corridors, dealing not only with relatively simple, uncongested rural operations, but also with urban rail terminal areas where operations are frequent, complex, and compete for communications spectrum with thousands of other radio transmitters both on and off the railroad property.

The High-Speed Non-Electric Locomotive program element will demonstrate a lightweight locomotive that achieves the speed and acceleration capability of electric trains without the expensive infrastructure of railroad electrification. The availability of demonstrated, cost-effective high-performance locomotive technology is an essential precursor for high-speed service on the emerging high-speed corridors. The expected outcome of this program element is a fleet of such locomotives demonstrating high-acceleration, high-speed, and reliable service on one or more corridors.

The High-Speed Grade Crossing program element will develop, demonstrate, and evaluate innovative grade crossing warning systems for application on high-speed rail corridors. The objective is to provide nearly the same security as grade separations but at a lower cost. The Sealed Corridor Initiative in North Carolina is representative of projects that could be successfully applied to other high-speed corridors.

The Track and Structures program element addresses issues associated with route capacity limitations of existing corridor infrastructure by seeking out and demonstrating innovative, more cost-effective methods to construct new track and structures, and also to seek out and demonstrate components suitable simultaneously for comfortable, high-speed passenger operations and durable enough for frequent, heavy axle load freight operations. This program element will provide validated new technology to permit States and their partners to afford infrastructure investments for adequate route capacity, with satisfactory performance, to implement high-speed passenger service on already-congested freight corridors.


FRA was directed by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century to initiate a competition to plan and build a magnetic levitation (maglev) project somewhere in the United States. The authorized Federal funding consists of $55 million for preconstruction planning to identify the most promising project, and up to $950 million for final engineering and construction of the guideway of the one selected project. Of the selected project's total cost, the Federal Government would provide up to $950 million of the funding, and the State or local governments or private entities would provide one-third. To be eligible for construction funding, each project must demonstrate that operating revenues will exceed operating costs, and total benefits will exceed total costs over a 40-year period on a project or corridor basis. Seven projects were selected to receive planning grants in May 1999. In January 2001, the field was narrowed by the selection of two projects by the USDOT for refined planning: one in Pittsburgh, and one connecting Baltimore and Washington. Both projects are preparing site-specific environmental impact statements that will be completed by 2003. FRA expects to select a single project early in FY 2003 and enter into an agreement to provide Federal assistance to design and build the project, subject to appropriations of funds, early in FY 2004.


Research and technology development is an ongoing, iterative process that must be both forward looking and flexible enough to address new needs. This Five-Year RD&D Plan has been developed with industry consultation to meet identified needs of the several parts of the railroad industry-freight, intercity passenger, and commuter. It is flexible enough to address new needs and to take advantage of new opportunities. FRA will continue to: (a) work with all parts of the railroad industry, (b) use its R&D project development and selection process, (c) undertake management self-assessments, and (d) have a peer review program under the auspices of the Transportation Research Board.

Despite record traffic levels in the freight railroad industry and the creation of fewer, larger railroad companies, financial difficulties have caused the large railroads to cut back significantly on their in-house R&D programs and to reduce their jointly funded program carried out through TTCI. Furthermore, Amtrak and the commuter railroads have no surplus funds to spend on R&D. These situations underscore the importance of the FRA RD&D program.

It is difficult to identify specific goals and outcomes for the FRA RD&D program in a five-year timeframe. Only a portion of the projects will be completed within five years, and not all will produce results that can or should be implemented. The rate at which project results will be implemented depends in part on the benefit-cost ratios of the technologies or processes developed in the individual projects, in part on the availability of and competition for capital in the railroad industry, and in part on the rate at which FRA mandates their implementation. The recent improvements in railroad safety are the result of R&D conducted in the 1970's and 1980's along with the sizeable investments railroads made in infrastructure and rolling stock during the 1980's and 1990's. At best, implementation of the results of only a small portion of the projects described herein will have begun five years from now. Effects of the projects described in this plan will begin to show up in railroad safety and efficiency statistics in earnest about ten years from now. This plan describes an RD&D program that will have long-term effects on the U.S. railroad system.


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