Federal Regulators Will Let U.S. Railroads Run Faster, More Efficient Trains

France's TGV, via Wikipedia
France's TGV, via Wikipedia

Why are American trains so expensive and yet so slow? One factor that rail advocates often point to is the Federal Railroad Administration and its rail safety regulations — rules that are finally on the verge of changing.

Antiquated regulations that date all the way back to the late 1800s (they were updated in the 1930s) compel American passenger rail operators to use trains designed like “high-velocity bank vaults,” as former Amtrak CEO David Gunn once put it. While European and Asian railcars became lighter and sleeker in recent decades without compromising safety records, FRA rules continued to insist on heavy, slow, outdated, and expensive equipment.

That finally appears set to change with the FRA’s release of new draft safety rules for traincars.

The FRA expects the new rules will enable railroads to use trains that are safer, more energy efficient, and cheaper to operate. The rules will allow American passenger train operators to purchase rolling stock designed to European safety standards (but not Japanese standards), without going through an expensive waiver process.

“It was an obstacle for all foreign railway manufacturers to bring any state-of-the-art trains into the country,” said Alois Starlinger, a board member for the Swiss train maker Stadler Rail.

Building trains to unusual U.S. safety standards for the small American passenger rail market made rolling stock purchases needlessly expensive. Opening the door to standardized European train specifications will significantly lower prices.

Rail operators are expected to save hundreds of millions of dollars a year as a result, enabling them to invest more in operating train service and upgrading rolling stock and infrastructure. (Another factor driving up the price of trains for U.S. railroads is Buy America regulations, which increase the cost of equipment and the risk of manufacturing flaws but are not affected by the new rules.)

It’s unknown why the new regulations spurned Japanese models, but Alon Levy, who blogs about transit issues at Pedestrian Observations, speculates that it’s because Japanese safety standards focus more on crash avoidance than “survivability” compared to European standards.

Even so, reforming the FRA’s old rules represents a welcome sea change in the way American regulators view train safety. Up until now, American safety standards were focused almost entirely on how trains hold up in the event of a collision. But in Europe and Asia, rail regulators and train makers have adopted a different approach to safety over time, putting a higher value on crash avoidance.

Lighter trains are easier to stop, for example. European and Asian train makers also modified designs so trains could absorb crash impacts using “crumple zones” and other techniques to minimize loss of life by managing the force of a collision without adding tons of weight.

  • Guy Ross

    When I first heard about these regulations I did some research about the weights of wagons and their capacity. Two areas and systems I am familiar with are Chicago and Germany. I was flabbergasted to learn that the most common and comparable wagons in both the Metra system and the RE system in Germany are basically the same weight with comparable carrying capacity. The German double is 50 ton with a listed capacity of 280 and the Metra is 55t with 245 capacity. Yes, there is a difference and weight per passenger is less in the German system but I was expecting at least a double or 3X ratio. So America, the land of industrial freedom and innovation, has been hamstrung by specs from the 30’s which only accouts for a 10% weight difference?

    http://www.nipponsharyousa.com/products/pages/zusametra-pc2002.htm
    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombardier_Twindexx

  • I suspect the German RE system doesn’t run at 220 MPH. Metra surely does not.

  • mckillio

    Thanks for the info on the waiver process, it alone will help speed up and reduce some costs but here in Denver (and maybe the language is wrong/just here) but we have light rail transit and commuter rail, the commuter rail cars are much bigger, faster (79mph top speed compared to 55mph for LRT) and definitely heavier, I believe a requirement since they’re within X feet of freight rail. Could our future light rail or commuter rail cars be lighter do to these rules, saving up front and operating costs?

  • They could be lighter, though I don’t know how much lighter they actually will be. The Denver equipment in use is the same used by SEPTA and is actually rated for up to 110 MPH service. I’m guessing that Denver RTD didn’t want to take the steps necessary to upgrade the route to 110 MPH specs, but the equipment isn’t the limitation. In regards to weight, comparable off-the-shelf Euro equipment such as the Stadler FLIRT and the Siemens Desiro actually weigh about the same amount as the Superliner Vs that RTD is using.

    But the real benefit is for agencies not having to need a waiver for off-the-shelf Euro equipment, particularly for DMUs. For example, the SMART project in the Bay Area ran into all sorts of issues getting their one-off FRA-compliant DMU trainsets made. The NCTD in San Diego had to get a temporal separation waiver to be able to operate their service with Desiros. Caltrain had to seek a waiver for their Stadler KISS trainsets as part of their electrification/modernization project. And my own local transportation commission was preparing to order one-off DMUs for service that is planned to start soon because they didn’t want to pursue the waiver process. With the new rules being finalized soon, I’m hoping the order could be delayed until that time so they can then just pick from existing models and perhaps save some money.

  • mckillio

    Thanks again for the great info, I didn’t realize the commuter trains were Silver Vs. Now I really want to know what it would take to up their regulated top speed. If it’s track upgrades then it’s likely to never happen but if it’s more regulatory then that’s possible. I assume they’ll never be able to go above 79 mph when they’re adjacent to freight tracks though.

  • The presence of freight isn’t a problem as there are already other mixed-traffic operations that allow up to 110 MPH elsewhere. to say nothing of all the reports from the steam era of trains that would cruise at 120+. The likely culprit is that RTD didn’t want to install the signaling upgrades that would be necessary to support the 80+ MPH speeds. They probably did the calculations and realized that there wouldn’t be a benefit to the higher speed in regards to how much it would cost since the train likely wouldn’t be able to use the top speed for much of the route anyway.

  • mckillio

    There are not many places that it can really go full speed but it’s also hard to tell with all of our issues with at grade crossings due to some software bug with the PTC. Having said that, they have two other commuter lines and are building a third one now, with completion in 2018, it would be surprising if none of these could benefit from faster than 79 mph on a consistent basis.

    Now what I find really strange is that SEPTA paid $224 million for 120 cars and RTD paid $300 million for 60 cars.

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