Since joining Mass Transit, I’ve interviewed the heads of some of the largest transit authorities in North America. Despite that, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I found myself in the office of Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo.
With the increased interest in passenger rail in the United States, I thought it was time to get information from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Szabo’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) oversaw the granting of $8 billion in federal stimulus funds earlier this year and is likely to give even more as it looks to bring President Obama’s vision of high-speed rail in the United States to fruition.
I expected your usual conversation with a politician — dancing around questions and not giving real answers — but instead found Szabo didn’t shy away from anything asked. In fact, he was open and candid with his responses, including his feelings about high-speed rail’s detractors.
Railroad in the Blood
As Administrator Szabo describes it he has a “very zig-zag background,” but one steeped in the rail industry. Szabo is a fifth-generation railroader whose father spent 40 years as a switchman for the Illinois Central railroad, now a part of the Canadian National Railway. As with too many other transit backgrounds to count, Szabo’s father asked him if he wanted to take a job with the railroad to make some extra money for college one summer and he never left.
“There’s so many just like me that hired out supposedly that one summer and never left,” Szabo says.
“And so that was my case. At 18 out of high school I was working the railroad and kind of fell in love with it. It got in the blood.
“I still got my degree, but it took more than a decade. It was a lot of night classes or sometimes the opposite, working midnights on the railroad and going to school in the daytime.”
Szabo split time on the freight and passenger rail industries, “I worked in freight service, over the road freight, as a yard switchman, but mostly commuter service in Chicago.
“While I enjoyed the opportunity to move around for a change of pace, commuter work was always cleaner. You were in a uniform. You had much better control of your hours. I preferred the passenger service to freight.”
From UTU to FRA
Szabo’s degree in labor relations and personnel management would serve him well over the next two decades as he got involved doing union work for the United Transportation Union (UTU).
“My father had been a local union officer,” Szabo says.
“As a kid in high school I’d do my dad’s books for him. He was the secretary/treasurer for the switchmen’s local, and so I did his books for him. And he paid me $100 a month. For a 15-year-old, it was huge money. And the majority of it went into the bank, I always saved.”
Szabo’s union career started as a local officer. When the secretary/treasurer position opened up he was asked to run for the position and he got it, which started his lengthy career with the union.
“The local legislative post for the union opened up and I always had an interest in politics,” Szabo says.
“You know I grew up in a home that was always civically involved. The hometown I came from, Riverdale — we always called it a community ofvolunteers. Mom and Dad were civically active, so it was just one of those core family values.”
Szabo spent two terms as a local officer before moving onto a statewide position, “I was elected state legislative director for the union, which was a full-time position, so I went on leave of absence from Metra at that time.”
While expanding his railroad industry career, Szabo was also growing a political career back home in Riverdale, getting appointed chairman of the local zoning board by the time he was 25. From there it was a steady climb over the next 14 years from park board to village board and eventually to Mayor of Riverdale.
“Mayor was a part-time job and full-time responsibility. I was state director for the UTU at that time, so I would spend all day in the office and then go home and spend all evening at the village hall and then virtually every weekend at the village hall,” Szabo says.
Eventually the burden of local community service and state union service got to be too much and Szabo elected to not seek reelection as Riverdale’s mayor. Focusing on his duties as the UTU’s state legislative director, Szabo found himself increasingly given national responsibilities.
“Although I was the state director in Illinois, I was assigned to the FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC), which helped draft all the federal rulemakings.
“So that heightened both my experience as well as visibility. And obviously, I met the president when he was a state senator back in Illinois,” Szabo says with a laugh.
“I’m not the only one that says this, but we remember his first day walking into the state capital in Springfield roughly 12 years ago.
“So I had a working relationship with the president at that time,” Szabo says.
“And all the pieces kind of just came together.”
Szabo just laughed when I asked him how much things had changed in the last year for the FRA with the investiture of $8 billion in federal stimulus funding for high-speed rail.
“Well, without question it’s a transformational time for the agency. The line we use — and it’s the truth — is that historically we were a rail safety agency that once a year wrote a little grant to Amtrak,” Szabo says.
“And that’s substantially changed. Obviously, now we’ve been handed a presidential spotlight program with the high speed rail program, so our role in grant making and passenger rail development has just exploded.
“And so we have to make the adjustments again to transform ourselves, recreate ourselves, to make sure that we properly meet those responsibilities while not losing sight of the fact that we are and always will be foremost a safety agency.”
Szabo says that it’s not that the FRA has changed its focus so much as that focus required expansion. A challenge he says they are meeting through staffing up and building depth.
“Quite frankly, what the small staff has been able to do in roughly a 12-month period has really been remarkable,” Szabo says.
“Starting with the original vision statement that was put together on behalf of the White House. The development of the grant guidance. Getting the notice of funds available out there. Reviewing all the applications. Announcing the awards, and now we’re in a situation where we have to simultaneously get those awards out the door, get the money out the door, while we move forward on a second round of grants.”
But all this activity hasn’t come without its share of detractors — those that claim spending this much money on rail is a giant “boondoggle.” Controversy surrounds several of the rail projects awarded stimulus funds, including calls to give the money back to the FRA or be allowed to spend it on highways. Szabo’s response to this criticism is as simple as it is succinct — if you don’t want it give it back.
“First off, if the state doesn’t want the money, believe me there are other states that do. The competition has been absolutely intense,” Szabo says pointing out that roughly 36 states filed $58 billion worth of applications for the stimulus funds.
“You are always going to have detractors, but if there is a state that doesn’t want the money, there is somebody else that does.
“Clearly, part of the application process is that the state does have to assume responsibility for the operations, but there is not a mode of transportation anywhere that isn’t subsidized to some extent,” Szabo says.
“To the detractors I would say are you telling me you don’t want a new interstate constructed because you are going to have to pay for the maintenance of it?
“Are you going to tell me you don’t want a new airport built because you are going to have to pay for the ongoing maintenance of it?
“So rail really isn’t different from any other transportation mode and there is no free ride.”
As passenger rail grows in the United States it will continue to be compared to the passenger rail systems in Europe and Asia. Szabo said such comparisons can be made on a region-by-region or state-by-state basis, but that the differences are the most interesting parts.
“One of the things I found real interesting when I was over in Europe is, as envious as we are about their passenger rail operations, they’re just as envious of our freight rail operations,” Szabo says.
“I think it’s really important to note that we’re not talking about developing a national high-speed system where you’re running from New York to Los Angeles by high speed. That’s not efficient.
“But again if you do take a look at given markets in regions there is sufficient density in many places to compare favorably with what has been done in Europe.
“And so frankly it’s a matter of understanding the market and building a system that meets the needs of that market.”
With the mention of “building a system that meets the needs of that market,” I asked Administrator Szabo if he saw the future more as a national rail network instead of a national rail system as we currently have with Amtrak. His answer was yes and no.
“Clearly there is a role for a national rail system,” Szabo says.
“So you’ve got Amtrak that kind of serves as that foundation — kind of the main part of the skeleton, which provides the full interconnectivity, but on top of Amtrak then you have the availability to lay down these regional high-speed networks.”
Szabo says these networks could be a hub, triangle or other formation depending on how the city pairs are situated. In the end it’s about providing connectivity by developing corridors, which he says lay down neatly over the Amtrak network.
“If you take a look at what the Europeans have done well it’s just that,” Szabo says.
“Too many people have this illusion that every train in Europe is doing 200 miles an hour. And you know it simply isn’t true.
“The analogy I like to use is comparing it to our road system. You have city streets, county roads, state highways, U.S. highways and the Interstate system. All play slightly different roles, all function at different speeds, but they fit together neatly to make a comprehensive road and highway system.
Szabo says the same approach is true for passenger rail where you fit together commuter rail, Amtrak and high-speed rail corridors.
“If you take a look at the vision we put out in April, there is a role for conventional 79-mile-an-hour service. That may be doing more of the local work while the high-speed rail has to be more express. And so these pieces fit together.”
Szabo admits that many of the high-speed rail lines will be operating on freight rail right-of-way, but that doesn’t mean that the two systems can’t work together and enhance each other.
“I need to be careful here because clearly this is a high-speed passenger rail program,” Szabo says.
“Having said that, you know in the case of emerging high speed rail — up to 125, maybe as far as 150 miles an hour — in many cases they’re going to be sharing freight right-of-way.
“I talked about the fact that we have a world-class freight rail network. We have to make sure that as we advance our passenger rail operations and develop a world-class passenger system that we do absolutely no harm to the freight rail operations.
“And so in those cases where there’s shared right-of-way, of course you’ve got to look at expanding capacity, modernizing infrastructure. Again to make sure you don’t have these entanglements where one’s delaying the other because we don’t want either of them delayed.
“In those cases there’s an opportunity for a lot of shared benefits.”
As with most other transit systems, high-speed rail has come under attack for not being “self-sufficient.” Amtrak has faced this charge in the past, which Szabo dismisses.
“Anybody that talks about operational self-sufficiency for Amtrak is being deceitful,” Szabo says.
“You take a look at most transit systems and they’re considered doing exceptionally well if they’re recovering 50 percent of their operating cost from the farebox. I mean Metra’s system in Chicago always bragged, you know it was kind of held as the gold standard because they were getting about 55 percent.
“It is exceptionally good. So they were bragging rightfully so.
“Everybody overlooks the fact that Amtrak recovers about 75 percent. That’s right, 75 percent of their operations from the farebox. So that’s better than any transit system in the nation.
“So I think it’s deceitful for anybody that thinks that operating the national passenger rail network can be self-sufficient.”
Szabo says that self-sufficiency for high-speed railroad corridors is different where you have a much better chance of attaining the goal.
“If you talk to the French or talk to the Spanish they’ll contend that their operations break even or show a slight profit provided that the capital investment for infrastructure is provided.
“So we have the opportunity to get close here, and really it all comes down to ridership. And when you’re talking about the corridor development you can get the frequency of service that develops the volume of ridership that certainly gives you the opportunity,” Szabo says.
Building on History
The United States has a rich rail and road history, one that Szabo hopes the industry can learn from and use when planning to provide a high level of convenient connectivity — connectivity on multiple modes.
“We’re moving forward with the development of our national rail plan. And that’s what it’s all about,” Szabo says.
“And when I say rail plan, that is all encompassing — freight as well as passenger rail. We’ve been approaching that as a multimodal plan.
“The FTA is at the table with us. The FHA is at the table with us. The Maritime Administration is at the table with us.
“Because whether you are talking about moving goods or people, you need to make sure that they can seamlessly flow from one mode to the other to use the mode that is most convenient for a particular part of a journey.”
Szabo says when it comes to high-speed rail this connectivity must include convenient transfers from transit to airports.
“Again let’s take a look at what the Europeans and Asians have done so well. You can fly across the world, get off your airplane, seamlessly connect to a high-speed rail train that may take you another 100 miles or 200 miles and then step off that and conveniently get onto a transit system that delivers you the final mile,” Szabo says.
“We need to look for our transit systems to offer that level of connectivity. I think transit operators need to view the high-speed rail program as again an opportunity to build synergy.
“Those that will ride trains are much more likely to also use transit. So the two systems feed on each other.”
Szabo believes the more travel options offered to the public the more they come to realize that they do like getting out of their cars. He says that with transit working in concert with high-speed rail more cities have that opportunity.
“We’ve spent a lot of time taking a look at the history and the rollout of both the original highway program and the interstate highway system,” Szabo says.
“And we believe that the vision we are rolling out is as every bit as transformational as both of those programs were. So we’re learning some things.
“But I really thought it was interesting, you talk about the rollout of the original highway program and that it took more than three years to get the first dollars out the door because it was a new program and we’re committed to see that done in more like three months.
“Secondly you take a look at the Interstate Highway System. Everybody gets it now because it’s in the rearview mirror. But this was a decades-long build out. It took 40 years to complete it. So it takes an awful lot of vision, an awful lot of persistence and some patience.
“And again, to the critics that are saying, ‘Oh the $8 billion doesn’t do all that much!’ This is the down payment. This is just a first step in what’s going to be a decades-long build out, of ensuring a balanced, high-quality passenger rail program.”
Szabo says the ultimate measure of success is ridership.
“Ridership starts building political will. Those are all voters and constituents,” Szabo says.
“I take a look at what happened back home in Illinois when they increased their state-sponsored Amtrak service between Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Carbondale and Chicago-Quincy.
“The very first year ridership went up more than 100 percent. It was about 118 percent in one year’s time.
“The support for the expansion was overwhelming. Totally bipartisan in the Illinois general assembly because they were hearing from every chamber of commerce, every public university, the environmental groups, the business community, the labor community, all the mayors.
“Illinois got it because the political support was so tremendous from every corner of the state.
“And the ridership proved it was the right thing to do.”
Szabo says that the interest is there and will turn into political will, which keeps the train moving down the tracks.
“I wasn’t the least bit surprised when we put our first round of grants out at the level of interest that we saw from the states across the country and this pent-up demand,” Szabo says.
“I’m convinced that the will, the political will, will be there to continue. So moving forward incrementally, you have to.
“As long as you have the vision.”