FRA Responds: Amtrak Will Be Able to Use “Proven” Trainsets

On Monday, we featured a Systemic Failure post about FRA regulations in our morning round-up from the Streetsblog Network. Systemic Failure indicated — and Streetsblog repeated — that the FRA was unwilling to change its rules to allow Amtrak to use “off-the-shelf” trainsets and other equipment.

The Systemic Failure post consists almost entirely of the FRA’s own words, from its final rule on high-speed safety standards. Still, FRA says we got it wrong.

In an email statement yesterday, agency spokesperson Kevin Thompson said:

The FRA and Amtrak are working very closely and cooperatively with each other and worldwide train manufactures through the Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) to achieve a consensus on safety design standards. There is unanimous consensus on the path forward with all of our stakeholders, including Amtrak, all international railcar manufacturers and other partners. Together through the RSAC process we are writing safety standards will allow proven trainsets used in other countries to operate in the U.S. market. Our process is and has always been a fluid and iterative process. Collectively, our goal is to establish and implement safety standards that are appropriate for U.S. operating environments so that passengers, employees and communities along rail routes are and remain safe.

It’s hard to reconcile this with the agency’s final rule refusing to change the previous rule that resulted in expensive, custom-made Acela trains, but it’s good to hear from FRA that the agency is working toward a solution that might lower costs. Still, “proven trainsets used in other countries” could mean many things. Readers, are you reassured?

  • Anonymous

    “will allow proven trainsets used in other countries to operate in the U.S. market.”

    Well, they either will or they wont. If we have another Acela or Sprinter style fiasco, they will be proven wrong (and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars wasted in the process).

  • I guess the question is, proven trainsets off the shelf, or proven trainsets with FRA-mandated modifications?

  • Anonymous

    This all could simply mean that someone in the FRA got a call about this matter yesterday from a higher-up. And so, “Yes, sir, I understand, sir. We will make a clarification on that point, sir. No problem.” Of course, if the higher-up failed to do that — and there are other possible explanations — it won’t be my first disappointment with this administration.

    But surely Joe Biden, Ray LaHood, and Joe Szabo understand that “modifying” a French, German, Spanish, Italian, or Japanese train to “comply with US standards” could mean another Acela-type massive mess-up, and no way can passenger rail survive another mess like that. If they don’t quite understand, I know that Amtrak President Joe Boardman will explain it again — and again and again if necessary.

    Because if the FRA regulators force Amtrak to operate another bunch of “tanks on rails”, everything the Obama Administration has accomplished with HSR will go down the drain.

    As to your question, yeah, I’m reassured by the FRA statement — but cut the cards.

  • Anonymous

    Eh… “appropriate for US operating environments” could translate to “we still think US railroads are fundamentally different than European and Japanese railroads…” So no, I’m not reassured yet.

  • From talking with some folks on the issue: Tier 2 regulations look like they’ll be changed in favor of off-the-shelf European trains. Tier 3 high-speed trains, however, might not be so lucky.

  • Joe R.

    “High-speed train” becomes an oxymoron if the FRA refuses to allow off-the-shelf equipment. With buff strength requirements and other modifications which add weight but do little for safety, there is no more high-speed. Acela had severe track hunting problems even at 135 mph which may or may not have been fixed. 135 mph is barely 10 mph into what the rest of the world considers “high-speed”. Certainly we won’t get 200 mph running unless the regulations are changed.

    Putting aside that FRA regulations probably due little to enhance crash survivability, the fact is high-speed trains and freight trains won’t be running on the same tracks 99% of the time, the reason being freight trains beat up tracks to the point they can’t be used for high-speed. In the few instances where they might share tracks on lower speed lines, in all likelihood there will be time separation (i.e. freights run only at night), pretty much making a collision with a freight train impossible. It’s one thing to have reasonable safety regulations, but here the FRA is doing the equivalent of dressing a person in a rubber suit just in case they get struck by lightning. Anyone in the business of risk management knows that spending exorbitant sums protecting against very low probability events is a waste of time/money.

  • Olog Hai

    More undefined terminology out of the FRA.

    Many trains “used in other countries” do not match the USA’s loading gauge, and in some cases exceed it, e.g. Shinkansen bullet trains at 11′ 1″ wide exceed the usual 10′ 6″ width of a US train at a high platform, and certainly exceed the Acela Express’ 10′ 4″—but most existing European high speed trains are less than 10 feet wide (e.g. Deutsche Bahn’s ICE 3 at 9′ 8″) and would have a significant gap at a US high platform.

    The FRA has not indicated if it is going to permit passengers to ride in the “forward power car” of passenger trains that will exceed 125 mph either—current regs forbid it, which is why the “forward power car” is a standalone locomotive on the Acela Express. The Metroliner MU, by contrast, was originally advertised to run on the Northeast Corridor at 160 mph, and of course permitted passengers into its forward power car. (That makes about 44 years of false advertising with respect to the NEC. Has it been that long?)

  • Olog Hai

    Well, there are some fundamental differences. When NJ Transit’s ALP-45DP was being transported over land in Germany, it could not operate on any of the Deutsche Bahn network despite the rail gauge being the same—and why? because the axle loadings were too high for DB’s tracks, so it was shipped by truck.

  • Olog Hai

    Deutsche Bahn’s Berlin–Hamburg Railway has 143-mph express trains sharing a traditional railroad with lots of freight and lots of commuter traffic. DB is not about to operate anything at 200 mph on a railroad like that—but some of their NBS (new-build high-speed) corridors were built with grades shallow enough to allow freight trains to use them.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, but the axle loads for freight in Europe are far less than in the US. Typical US freight train axle loads would beat the hell out of high-speed track to the point it could no longer be used as such.

  • Anonymous

    But why were the axle loadings too high? My guess would be FRA crashworthiness standards. It shouldn’t take more motive power to haul around US commuter trains than European commuter trains. Except, of course, that US commuter rail coaches are much heavier… thanks to crashworthiness standards.

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