The FRA logo.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was created as part of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966. It is one of 10 agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation concerned with intermodal transportation. Prior to the creation of the FRA the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) regulated railroad safety. The ICC was shut down in 1995.

The Surface Transportation Board manages economic aspects of railroads, including rates, service, acquisition and abandonment of rail lines. The Federal Transit Administration provides financial and technical assistance to local public transit agencies, including local rail operators not regulated by the FRA is provided by the Federal Transit Authority. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates transportation-related accidents and crashes, including those involving railroads.

What the FRA does

The mission of the FRA is to “enable the safe, reliable and efficient movement of people and goods for a strong America, now and in the future.”

The key functions of the FRA are: the creation and enforcement of rail safety regulations; the administration of railroad assistance programs; the administration of rail funding; research and development in support of improved railroad safety and national rail policy; provide for the rehabilitation of Northeast Corridor passenger rail service; and the consolidation of government support of rail transportation activities. 

The FRA operates through seven divisions under the offices of the Administrator and Deputy Administrator. The agency employs a staff of about 850.

Hopper railcars sit on the tracks waiting to move. (Photo: transportation.gov)

The FRA is charged with the oversight and regulation of both passenger and freight rail operations on the national interconnected rail infrastructure within the United States .

The agency regulates public and intercity rail services; however it does not regulate “closed” railways that operate exclusively on private property. Additionally it does not have regulatory authority over subways, light rail or elevated intra-city passenger rail systems that do not connect to any public rail networks.

Of the key functions of the FRA, the enforcement of safety regulations (i.e., speed limits and requirements for safety features such as positive train control) is first among equals.  Non-legislative recommendations of FRA policy come from the agency’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee (which was established in 1996). However, much of FRA policy is created by Congressional legislation. An example is the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. This was  Congressional legislation that became law. The FRA, which was charged to enforce the Act, is doing so through numerous regulations that took effect two years after the legislation became law. 

Two Norfolk Southern trains. (Photo: Norfolk Southern Corporation)

National Rail Plan

The need for a National Rail Plan (NRP) was a component of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA). However, before the official plan could be drafted, the PRIIA required a Preliminary National Rail Plan (PNRP) to be drafted first, which was submitted to Congress by the FRA on October 15, 2009. On December 16, 2009 the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2010 was enacted into law and established the delivery date for the NRP as September 15, 2010.

The U.S. population and the nation’s infrastructure continue to grow, which means that the transportation systems used also need to grow. Therefore, the NRP’s main goal is to increase the nation’s railway capacity to include 70 million more people and 2.8 billion tons more of freight within the next 25 years, and 100 million more people and 4 billion tons more of freight within the next 40 years. The NRP also calls for the continued improvement in rail safety.

Two Union Pacific freight trains move on parallel tracks in a major city environment. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)