A noble calling: Ron Batory set new standard at FRA

Posted by Bill Stephens
on Friday, March 5, 2021

Former FRA Administrator Ron Batory helped ensure railroads met the positive train control deadline. TRAINS David Lassen
When Ron Batory was sworn in as head of the Federal Railroad Administration on Feb. 28, 2018, it would be an understatement to say that there was a lot on his plate.

Seventeen railroads – including most of the busiest commuter lines in the country – were woefully behind with positive train control implementation and were at risk of missing the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline. Plus, several long-simmering issues needed addressing. Among them: An outdated FRA rulemaking system that hindered technological progress; proposals on train crew size and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes; and how freight railroads handled Amtrak trains.

When Batory walked out of FRA headquarters for the last time in January, he had checked off everything on his to-do list. Every railroad made it across the PTC finish line. The heavy handed rulemaking process was streamlined, allowing railroads to take a data-driven approach to deploying new safety technology, including train and track inspections. Mandates for two-person crews and ECP brakes were officially shelved. And late last year FRA published a workable final rule governing Amtrak on-time performance on host railroads.

Batory’s tenure at FRA ranks among the most consequential since the safety agency was formed in 1966. This is a credit to Batory, a 45-year career railroader who became administrator with an agenda aimed at improving the industry and overhauling the FRA.

Most FRA administrators have either been political creatures or transportation people with little to no background in railroading. Batory, in contrast, is a no-nonsense railroader’s railroader.

One of the advantages of having a railroader lead the FRA is the understanding that comes from experience. If senior railroad officials or labor leaders tried to spin a safety issue during a meeting, Batory saw through it. Says one career safety official: “He knew when they were bullshitting him. He knew how it worked. And he wouldn’t take excuses.”

Nowhere was this more apparent than with PTC. Batory led a meticulously organized FRA effort to track every railroad’s progress. He also recognized the interoperability challenges and operational complexity on the Northeast Corridor, home to Amtrak, eight commuter railroads, and six freight railroads. With the exception of SEPTA, every commuter railroad between Boston and Washington was lagging on PTC. At Batory’s urging, then-Amtrak President Richard Anderson convened twice-monthly meetings that included the heads of every commuter agency on the corridor. This sorted out problems and produced progress. Says one FRA official of Batory: “That PTC finished on time is due to his efforts. He was like a tiger on top of it as soon as he came in the door."

Batory walked a fine line between railroad management and rail labor, held them to high standards, and told the leaders of both camps that his door was always open.

But he didn’t have time for executives who wanted to talk about cutting costs or making their railroads more efficient. “We aren’t here to ascertain whether you can be more viable,” Batory says. “But if you come in and say there’s a different way of doing business and it’s going to reduce risk and enhance safety, you’re going to have 100% of my attention.”

Likewise, Batory told labor leaders he was happy to work with them on ways to improve safety. “But if you come in and just tell me you’re losing membership and people are getting furloughed ... We’re not an employment agency. We’re a safety agency,” he says.

Batory, whose father was a railroader and union official, sees the contentious crew size issue as a matter for the bargaining table, not the FRA. (In a rebuke, a federal appeals court in February overturned the FRA’s crew-size decision.) Batory also brought a more rigorous data-driven approach to the FRA and its safety and regulatory efforts. “Without facts, it’s just another opinion,” he’s fond of saying. He wants that to be a lasting part of his legacy at FRA.

Batory, one of the nicest people you will meet in railroading, did not need the FRA’s top job. In fact, he was retiring as Conrail’s president and chief operating officer and was moving to Santa Fe, N.M., when the call came to serve. He answered it because he loves the railroad industry and wanted to repay a debt. “I’ve spent my whole life in the railroad industry,” Batory explains. “And everything that I have in my head has been given to me by thousands of people that I have come across during my railroad career. I cannot think of a better opportunity to give back to the people what the people gave me. And I wanted to contribute to FRA to do that.”

You can reach Bill Stephens at and follow him on twitter @bybillstephens

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