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What does the Federal Railroad Administration do?

Overseeing safety compliance, providing technical support to federal grant awardees among many functions

This AskWaves article looks at the role the Federal Railroad Administration plays in overseeing freight and passenger rail operations. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Recent freight rail service issues have brought attention to the Surface Transportation Board, an independent federal agency that oversees economic regulations related to the railroads. This oversight includes railroad rates and rail service issues, such as mergers, line sales, line construction and line abandonments. 

But there is another federal agency that also regulates the railroads, and that is the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the safety aspects of rail. 

History of FRA

The Federal Railroad Administration was founded in 1966 and given a mission to promote “fast, safe, efficient and convenient transportation at the lowest cost consistent therewith and with other national objectives, including the efficient utilization and conservation of the nation’s resources.”

By creating FRA, the responsibility to oversee rail safety was transferred to FRA from the Interstate Commerce Commission’s Bureau of Safety and Service, as well as the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of High Speed Ground Transportation. 

According to FRA, the passage of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 gave FRA plenary authority over rail safety matters, allowing it to prescribe regulations. 

For even more history about the federal government’s involvement in rail safety, check out this 1993 report, The Federal Railroad Safety Program, 100 Years of Safer Railroads.

What FRA does

FRA has several divisions overseeing freight and passenger rail. 

The Office of Railroad Safety is the largest component within FRA. FRA says this office is responsible for conducting inspections to assess compliance with federal laws and regulations in six technical disciplines: track, signal and train control, motive power and equipment, operating practices, hazmat and highway-rail grade crossing. 

There are around 350 safety inspectors working for this office, and most of them work in the field.

Within this office, there are four subunits:

  • Office of Railroad Systems and Technology.
  • Office of Data Analysis and Program Support.
  • Office of Regional Operations and Outreach.
  • Office of Railroad Infrastructure and Mechanical.

These offices are responsible for a wide range of rail safety issues, including drug and alcohol testing, hazardous materials, operating practices, rail safety data and management, accident reporting, technology and automation, and grade crossings, among many other responsibilities.

Another main component of FRA is the Office of Railroad Policy and Development, which is the second-largest program office and is responsible for administering programs to improve railroad safety, efficiency and capacity, the agency told FreightWaves.

The Office of Railroad Policy and Development manages federal rail investment programs and the grant programs. Its responsibilities also include administering annual grants to Amtrak authorized and appropriated by Congress for operating, capital, and debt obligations, as well as helping oversee the Northeast Corridor (NEC) to ensure that FRA’s NEC project and policy activities are well-coordinated, the agency said.

The recently passed bipartisan infrastructure law is expected to grow this office because of the  unprecedented amount of funding that FRA will administer through its discretionary competitive grant programs, such as the ones to eliminate railroad crossings and various infrastructure grants, FRA said.  

Within this office are three subunits: 

  • Office of Infrastructure Investment.
  • Office of Policy and Planning.
  • Office of Research, Development and Technology.

The Office of Infrastructure Investment has two divisions: a grants and project management division and an environment and project engineering division. They oversee environmental reviews for rail projects that receive federal financial support, ensuring that those projects comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. This office also helps with support planning, project design and preliminary engineering activities that are conducted by entities that received FRA grants. 

The Office of Policy and Planning has three divisions: a policy development division, a freight rail policy and economics division and a rail planning division. This office oversees the development of a national rail strategy and the planning of programs that support this strategy.

The Office of Research, Development and Technology sponsors and manages research, development and demonstration programs designed to improve the safety, security, efficiency and the capacity of freight and passenger rail transportation, FRA said. The four divisions within this office are track research, rolling stock research, train control and communications research, and human factors research.

Interesting facts about FRA

FRA provided FreightWaves with some known and unknown facts about the agency:

  • At one time, FRA owned and controlled the Alaska Railroad. That ownership was transferred from the U.S. Department of the Interior to the newly created FRA, but in 1985, the state of Alaska purchased the railroad.
  • FRA owns the Transportation Technology Center, a 30,000-acre research and test facility.
  • There are about 200 state railroad safety inspectors who support regulatory oversight through FRA’s State Rail Safety Participation Program.
  • FRA operates a small fleet of track geometry vehicles through the Automated Track Inspection Program.

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.