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January 2015

Rail News: People

Joseph Szabo says goodbye to Federal Railroad Administration, hello to Chicago planning agency


By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor

The Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) 12th and second-longest-serving administrator has departed the agency, but not the rail industry. Joseph Szabo stepped down as FRA administrator Jan. 9 to join the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) as a senior fellow, effective Jan. 14. The U.S. Department of Transportation on Jan. 12 named Sarah Feinberg acting FRA administrator.

The first administrator with a rail labor background, Szabo completed a more than five-and-a-half-year FRA tenure that began in May 2009. Only Jolene Molitoris — who led the FRA for nearly eight years from April 1993 to January 2001, nearly covering former President Bill Clinton’s two terms — held the administrator post longer.

“It’s rare for an administrator to serve two terms,” said Szabo during an interview held on his last day in office.

Why join a regional planning organization for seven northeastern Illinois counties? The time was right to return to his hometown of Chicago, says Szabo. His father, a former switchman and rail labor union officer who was 81 and in good health when Szabo joined the FRA, now is 87 and dealing with several “challenges” back home, he says.

In addition, the CMAP position will enable Szabo to remain active in the rail industry. His 39-year rail career includes stints as a switchman, trainman and conductor for the Illinois Central Railroad and Metra, state legislative director for the United Transportation Union and vice president of the Illinois AFL-CIO.

CMAP developed and now guides the implementation of a comprehensive regional plan that establishes coordinated strategies designed to help the region's 284 communities address transportation, housing, economic development, open space, environmental and other quality-of-life issues.

The senior fellow position — essentially CMAP’s senior advisor on transportation policy — reminds Szabo about his time as mayor of Riverdale, Ill., from 1997 to 2000. Just as he coordinated efforts with various constituents while leading the city, Szabo expects to work with railroad executives, civic leaders and others to help expedite and increase funding for infrastructure projects aimed at easing congestion and expanding capacity for railroads in the Chicago area. He also plans to help advance CMAP's initiatives to better connect land-use and transportation policies.

“We’ll be focusing on the movement of goods and people in area with the most rail traffic,” he says.

Szabo had focused on the rail realm for some quite some time from a national perspective. Reflecting on what he believes were his greatest accomplishments as administrator, Szabo first cites safety improvements by freight and passenger railroads. Accidents, injuries and fatalities dropped to record low levels during his tenure, he says. The reduction in part was a result of new FRA rules that aimed to improve fatigue management and training requirements for workers, change rail inspection procedures and heighten awareness around trains.

When Szabo took office in 2009, the rail industry had 26 fatalities — or about two per month — but that figure dropped to five last year, he says.

“Now, five is still too many because the goal is zero. But that goal is in striking distance,” says Szabo. “I came out of the ranks and had friends killed in the line of duty. I believe we’re on a path to improve safety even more.”

He also believes the FRA has made strides with the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, culminating with the groundbreaking ceremony for the first segment of California’s high-speed rail (HSR) system that Szabo attended in Fresno just three days before he left the administration.

In February 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided $8 billion for intercity passenger-rail projects, followed by an appropriation for another $2 billion in 2010. Of those funds, $3.4 billion was allocated for California’s HSR system, which not only will serve the state but ultimately serve as the backbone to a southwest regional HSR network and a model for HSR development nationwide, says Szabo.

“The groundbreaking in California reached a goal that took five years to reach,” he says. “We have a level of readiness now for high-speed rail.”

Szabo is proud that he was one of the signatories for the agreement on California’s HSR project, a document that will be in place “in perpetuity,” he says.

One thing that didn’t reach quite as fulfilling a conclusion during his tenure was positive train control (PTC) implementation. Although the freight and passenger railroads that are mandated to install PTC have until 2015’s end to complete implementation, there long has been concern in the rail industry that many of the railroads won’t be finished on time.

Members of Congress should re-read a PTC report the FRA issued two years ago and then read an update the agency expects to release to Congress in a few months — it’s imperative that the FRA be able to provide provisional certifications for railroad’s PTC systems, Szabo believes. Such certifications would help the FRA better manage its limited resources, such as by preventing a potential review backlog resulting from many railroads submitting final safety plans at the same time.

The mandated deadline then could be lifted as the FRA works through provisional certifications and individual safety plans, or if there’s an extension to perhaps 2018’s end, the FRA could be given the authority for provisional certifications, says Szabo.

“I believe implementation would be done more quickly. Just a deadline extension isn’t good enough,” he says.

Szabo figures to continue monitoring PTC and other rail industry developments while serving CMAP. Since five generations of his family have served in the industry, railroading will always be near and dear to his heart.

“This has been my life since I was 18. It’s long been the family business,” says Szabo.


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