Hoosier State darts and laurels

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, March 15, 2015

Indiana and the Federal Railroad Administration are reported to have smoked the peace pipe, as to the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State. At issue was whether Indiana had to become a railroad under FRA’s supervision to insure that safety rules are obeyed. As I understand it, the two parties agreed to draw up a memorandum of understanding, thus ending a standoff that threatened to end the life of this state-supported passenger train.

The memorandum will spell out each party’s role in safely operating this train. FRA wants a impermeable chain of responsibility for its rail-safety regulations — someone to ultimately answer for all the bits and pieces of a train’s operation. A lofty goal, to be sure, but what a way to go about it . . . .

So now that a truce has been declared and participants have holstered their pistols, it’s time to issue darts and laurels to people and institutions.

DART to the Federal Railroad Administration. No no, guys, this isn’t the way to retain credibility. First of all, you acted like bullies. Second, you jumped first of all on the only two states that have acted to run part of their passenger services outside of Amtrak auspices, North Carolina and now Indiana, creating the impression you are in cahoots with Amtrak. And third, you unilaterally tried to impose an expensive, unwieldy (and possibly unconstitutional) process in order to increase your comfort level. Tsk tsk.

LAUREL to Indiana transportation commissioner Karl Browning. His goal all along has been to try to offer Hoosiers a better transportation product at lower cost. To his credit, INDOT has been almost totally transparent in pursuing this goal, documenting the entire process on its website. A lot of other states, unhappy at the high cost of their subsidies for shorter-distance passenger trains and at the total lack of transparency in Amtrak’s accounting practices, are watching how this attempt to go it alone plays out. Browning comes out of this looking like a strong leader and a straight shooter.

DART to acting FRA administrator Sarah Feinberg. I know her only by reputation, and it is that she is a smart, savvy, politically attuned person. So how on earth could she have been so tone deaf to the hue and cry that would erupt from 19 states when her agency wrote a rule requiring these states to take on the trappings of railroads? I mean, she is new to railroads but at least she’s supposed to have sharp political antennae. Those smarts deserted her on this.

DARTS to the other 17 affected state departments of transportation, who fiddled while North Carolina was being told to become a railroad in 2008 and then Indiana in 2015. You folks will be next. So where were you this time? Hiding behind your fear of FRA, perhaps. The time to push back on the Federal Railroad Administration’s ill-chosen decision is now, and the more publicly, the better.

LAUREL to Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, for sticking it out as the middle man. His short line company is to manage the Hoosier State and supply its equipment (Amtrak would continue to furnish engineers and conductors). I would not want to be in his shoes. Going forward, FRA people will arrive to inspect IPH passenger cars wearing white gloves and dark intentions, one suspects.—Fred W. Frailey

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