A trailblazer in rail, Molitoris remains a champion of safety

Jolene Molitoris poses with current and former U.S. Department of Transportation officials at a March 15 ceremony where she received a lifetime achievement award from the American Public Transportation Association. She donned a pink feather boa in recognition of fellow WTS International “sisters” who attended the ceremony. As FRA administrator from 1993 through 2000, Molitoris oversaw a historic period of improvement in railroad safety. APTA

By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor 

When American Public Transportation Association (APTA) executives were planning the association’s 2023 High-Speed Rail Seminar, they were looking to recognize a female trailblazer in rail who has advocated for speedier passenger-rail service in the United States. 

One name quickly rose to the top of the list: Jolene Molitoris, the first female administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.  

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Molitoris ran the FRA until Dec. 31, 2000. She remains the agency’s longest-serving top administrator. 

Prior to joining the FRA, the Ohio native was known for her strong advocacy of expanding the nation’s freight- and passenger-rail system. From 1983 to 1991, she was deputy director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, where she created a rail program that led to the development of 13 new short lines in the state — small railroads that “are still cooking today,” as Molitoris told RailPrime in a recent interview. From 1977 to 1983, she worked for the Ohio Rail Transportation Authority, eventually becoming its executive director. 

Also, before joining the FRA, she was a regional chair of the National Conference of State Rail Officials; in 1989 and again in 1992, she was the recipient of the High-Speed Rail Association President's Award for Outstanding Achievement.  

But as FRA administrator, Molitoris became known for her dogged pursuit of rail safety improvements. Her belief was — and still is — that the FRA and entire rail industry should have “zero tolerance for hazards” that lead to train derailments and rail-accident fatalities. 

Friends who knew Molitoris at the FRA describe her as “tireless,” “tenacious” and “a force of nature who wouldn’t take no for an answer” when it came to championing the safe operation of freight and passenger trains. 

A lifetime of achievements in rail 

So, when APTA held its seminar in Washington, D.C., in mid-March, the association honored Molitoris with a lifetime achievement award for her service to the rail industry.  

“During her tenure, Molitoris championed rail safety in the U.S. and around the world, establishing zero tolerance for any safety hazard as the industry standard, creating safety partnerships with rail labor and management and achieving historic increases in all safety categories as a result,” APTA officials said in the press release announcing her award. 

The award ceremony was attended by hundreds of people, including current FRA Administrator Amit Bose and dozens of former members of the Clinton administration, said Art Guzzetti, APTA’s vice president of mobility initiatives and public policy. 

“I knew her well in those days and our friendship has continued,” Guzzetti said. “I remember her saying that when it comes to railroading, ‘Safety is our North Star.’” 

Molitoris established safety initiatives at the FRA that continue in some form today. For example, in 1996 she led the FRA’s creation of the Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) to develop new regulatory standards through a collaborative process involving the department, rail labor and management. New regs couldn’t be established unless labor and management agreed. She faced doubters who said such collaboration would never happen. 

“‘When pigs fly,’ some people told me. ‘We’ll see,’ I said. Well, it did happen, and [RSAC] is still operating,” Molitoris said. 

Also created during her time at FRA was the Safety Assurance and Compliance Program, or SACP, which implemented safety audits at railroads that then led to detailed plans for improvement. Again, the process involved collaboration between FRA and the railroads’ labor and management. FRA regional administrators regularly met on site at the railroads to discuss their safety culture and how to prevent problems from becoming catastrophic situations. 

“This ‘team’ would look at the data, agree on issues needing to be addressed and what steps could be taken most readily,” Molitoris said. “I believe SACP, along with RSAC — consensus- based rulemaking with railroads, labor and FRA at the table — were two important reasons that, during my tenure, the industry experienced its seven safest years” in history. 

Over those seven years, the FRA-led partnerships with labor, management and others helped reduce train accident fatalities by 87%, rail employee casualties by 34% and grade-crossing fatalities by 35%. Those record lows were achieved while freight and passenger traffic were at all-time highs, according to the FRA press release issued when Molitoris retired from the agency in 2001. 

Prevention is key 

After Molitoris left the FRA, the SACP was eliminated under President George W. Bush’s administration, a situation that disappoints her — especially considering the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. 

“SACP [was] a prevention program,” she said. “The fact is, it’s not good enough to address [safety] after an accident happens. You have to do it before it happens. You have to prevent it.” 

With all the attention that Wall Street pays to railroads’ profits, stock prices and buybacks, more attention should be paid to the costs that train derailments and other accidents have on those companies’ bottom lines when safety prevention is overlooked, Molitoris believes. 

“In my view, a safe railroad is a profitable railroad,” she said. “I don’t think Wall Street accurately registers the importance of this. When you have something happen like East Palestine, the [railroad’s] stock price takes a huge hit. And I just think there’s a way we can get bottom-line information to stockholders and railroad executives that shows the financial benefit of safety.” 

What can’t be measured in financial terms is the human toll. In her award acceptance speech at the APTA seminar on March 15 and during her interview with RailPrime, Molitoris grew emotional as she recalled meeting a rail worker at an industry dinner shortly after her confirmation as FRA administrator. At the event, a rail union member came up and asked if he could introduce her to a union brother at another table. 

“I said, ‘Sure,’ and as we walked, I could see [at the table] the smiling face of an all-American boy. But it wasn’t until we got closer that I saw he had only one arm and no legs,” Molitoris said.  

The man had lost his limbs in a rail accident.  

“Meeting him is what gave me my steel spine” to work tirelessly for rail safety, Molitoris said. 

After she left the FRA, Molitoris worked in the private sector, including stints as president and CEO of GeoFocus Inc., a provider of safety enhancing geographic information system (GIS) and global positioning satellite (GPS) wireless technology solutions to the transportation industry; and as president of U.S. Railcar LLC.  

She also returned to a role in Ohio government during then-Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration — and she broke another glass ceiling as the first woman to lead the Ohio Department of Transportation. 

Today, Molitoris remains active on the rail front in numerous ways, including on a global scale. In early 2022, after Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Molitoris read about Ukrainian Railways’ (UZ) efforts to move millions of refugees out of the country and transport food and supplies to Ukrainian soldiers and others remaining in the country. She reached out to longtime rail industry friend Ray Chambers, now owner of RBC Transportation Solutions LLC and president of the Association for Innovative Passenger Rail Operations (AIPRO).  

The two contacted others they knew in railroading in the United States and overseas, including Nick Brooks, secretary general of the Alliance of Passenger Rail New Entrants in Europe (ALLRAIL), an international organization of passenger-rail companies. Between them, in March 2022 they launched the Global Ukraine Rail Task Force to generate support for the country’s rail sector during the war and help it rebuild after the war. 

Chambers and Molitoris have known each other for decades, going back to when she was working in the Ohio DOT rail division. She serves as an adviser to AIPRO, which is dedicated to expanding passenger rail in the United States and opening it up to more competition, Chambers said. 

“She’s a terrific person,” he said. “I’ve known every FRA administrator over the past 50 years and in my opinion, she was about the most effective one we’ve ever had.” 

Her ability to bring together a cooperative team of rail labor and management under RSAC to vet safety rules and regulations “was a tremendous contribution to the industry,” he said.

Advice for the next generation of railroaders 

Molitoris said she “really didn’t think about glass ceilings or breaking them” even though she was aware that she was the first female to run the FRA and Ohio DOT. 

“I have to give my parents a lot of credit in this regard. They never thought there was anything I couldn't do,” she said. “Also, so many male colleagues were so generous in sharing their knowledge and experience. 

“Looking for the best in everyone usually results in them finding the best in you,” she said. “I was very grateful for so very many who helped me along the way. Learning as much as I could from lifelong railroaders was a benefit beyond measure.” She also credited her participation in Women Transportation Seminar for its support and networking opportunities. Now known as WTS International, the organization was founded in the late 1970s to promote the advancement of women in transportation. Sharing “sisterhood” through WTS was immeasurably helpful as she advanced in her career, she said. 

As for encouraging young women of today to consider a career in railroading, Molitoris advised they learn all they can about what they’re passionate about — and not to be afraid to try new things. 

“If and when individuals experience prejudice because of their womanhood or find blocks in the way of their professional growth, they need to find help in overcoming it,” she said. “There truly are good people out there who will help. And I would say never become cynical or bitter. Respect and kindness always wins the day, I believe.”