When Will the Feds Stop Outlawing Railcars Used By the Rest of the World?

The removal of 115 railcars from service in Philadelphia last week was the latest example of the troubles American commuter rail agencies face when purchasing rolling stock. Thanks to cracks in a critical component of the railcars, riders are looking at severe service reductions for at least the entire summer. While U.S. DOT floated a regulatory change that could prevent similar failures, it’s been tied up in the federal bureaucracy for three years.

Philadelphia's defective railcars highlight some of the problems with U.S. passenger rail regulations. Photo: SEPTA
Philadelphia’s defective railcars highlight some of the problems with U.S. train safety regulations. Photo: SEPTA

SEPTA purchased the flawed railcars three years ago. The exact cause of the defect has yet to be determined, but it’s clear that procuring rolling stock is riskier and more complex than it needs to be, due to Federal Railroad Administration safety regulations.

An FRA rule dating back to 1945 requires trains to withstand 800,000 pounds of force, according to a report by David Edmondson for the Competitive Enterprise Institute [PDF]. This makes American trains much heavier than European and Asian models, as well as more expensive to build and operate. Passenger railcars in the U.S. have been likened to “a high-velocity bank vault,” as former Amtrak CEO David Gunn put it.

Because of these unusual standards, American rail agencies can’t just acquire the same trains used in Europe or Asia. Instead, railcars here must be custom-designed for America’s relatively small market, which drives up cost and risk. Philadelphia’s Silverliner V cars — the ones with the defect — were 10,000 pounds heavier than originally planned. The manufacturer, an American subsidiary of the South Korea-based Hyundai, had never designed stainless steel railcars to FRA standards.

For all the added expense, America’s brand of rail safety carries its own hazards. “A heavier train takes longer to decelerate, which makes crashes more likely to occur,” writes Edmondson. Rather than building bank vaults on rails, European and Asian rail systems focus on preventing collisions in the first place, using technology like positive train control.

In 2013, after years of pressure from rail advocates, U.S. DOT finally issued a notice that it was considering a rule change to allow lighter, more efficient trains on American tracks. But the policy has advanced at a snail’s pace. Later that year, the FRA’s Robert Lauby said he expected the change to take effect in 2015, but it is still tied up in the federal rulemaking process.

An FRA spokesperson told Streetsblog the draft rule, which has yet to be published publicly, was just sent to the Office of Management and Budget this April. OMB can adjust the draft rule before it is presented for public comment, adjusted again by U.S. DOT, and enacted.

There is no noticeable resistance to reform within the rail industry. The FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from the American Public Transportation Association, Amtrak, NHTSA, and other industry groups, unanimously recommended the rule change, according to a source in Congress familiar with the rulemaking process.

The only thing holding back progress, it seems, is the leisurely pace of bureaucracy at the White House and U.S. DOT.

68 thoughts on When Will the Feds Stop Outlawing Railcars Used By the Rest of the World?

  1. David Edmondson here.

    Yep, you’re absolutely right. Caltrain paved the way for other agencies to pursue non-compliant vehicles, but it is still an onerous process to get a waiver approved, one some agencies just can’t afford. After all, the waiver needs to be obtained before the bidding process begins, and for new agencies like SMART or eBART that’s a delay they also can’t afford.

  2. Euro-spec vehicles don’t always need to be recycled after a crash. The crumple zones are detachable and replaceable. The added buff strength of FRA-compliant vehicles makes them more likely to override and be totally destroyed – the crash energy has to go somewhere, after all.

  3. The buff strength rules, target of my piece, were put into place in 1956 for multiple-unit vehicles like much of MNRR but yeah, in 1999 for locomotive-hauled cars.

    Euro-style crumple zones may help prevent derailments associated with crashes, keeping the crash energy in the line of motion, but wouldn’t have helped with speed limit violations like the Amtrak and MNRR crashes.

  4. I know that one NJT PL42, a ruggedized European design, was involved in some non-catastrophic accident and the intended crumple effect resulted in frame damage and the loco being written off, just the way it works in a modern car. For automobiles back in the day you could just straighten the frame and replace the body panels.

    Since most accidents are going to be at level crossings, or will involve obstructions or freight cars, it’s best to blast through them.

  5. It’s irrelevant – both were commuter trains and this could have happened on an isolated line not subject to FRA regulations, like 2009 WMATA crash. Let’s count only cases where other train was a freight one.

  6. Correct. The uniform platforms on the A Line accounted for one of the differences between the RTD and SEPTA Silverliner Vs that may have contributed to the lack of problems in the former.

    From BillyPenn via Planetizen:
    “There are technical differences in weight, the equalizer bar, and design to accommodate platform heights (described in greater detail in article), which ‘could be relevant to why Denver isn’t worried about SEPTA’s current issue,” writes Danya Henninger for BillyPenn.

  7. Japanese railroads are 95% privately owned and operated, far more complex than American railroads, have a crazy mix of different operators, many of the interlined, handle far higher volumes, have lower construction costs, are profitable, and are much safer….

    The one thing they don’t have is much freight (although there is some).

  8. Er, yes because those speed limit violations had nothing to do with crashing into other trains (specifically freight which is what the FRA worries about)) or other objects on the ROW. They sped off the track as you stated.

    You’re not helping your case about this. lol

  9. Car crashes continue so don’t install seat belts because it’ll add cost to building cars? Is that the line of thinking you want to follow?

  10. We spend a ton of money making sure planes are safe and don’t drop out of the sky and the rate of deaths on them are small as is as well. If we want to make sure people have confidence in passenger rail and in its safety, then yes.

    Train and plane accidents don’t garner huge attention for nothing.

  11. Considering that the death toll in Italy is similar to the death toll in Chatsworth despite the latter occurring slower speeds and only one passenger train, that doesn’t build a very convincing case in regards to the implied safety of American standards.

  12. You initially claimed that it would be a tragedy for a crash similar to the one that recently occurred in Italy to happen as a result of the FRA relaxing rules that would allow more European trains, which certainly is true. However, that statement ignores the fact that equipment that is compliant with current FRA rules has also resulted in a similar disposition as the Italian crash. Contrary to what you’re insisting, over two dozen people died and more than 100 more were injured in the Chatsworth crash, which occurred with equipment that the FRA felt was safe enough to use. The same Bombardier Bi-Levels continue to be in service both with Metrolink and other agencies around the country. Furthermore, you’re apparently confusing Chatsworth with Oxnard, which actually did result in the death of the engineer of that train.

  13. I suspect Zack is just refering to crash standards, not loading gauge (or other arbitrary UIC standards)…

    Freight rail is good, but in the end, freight and passenger rail shouldn’t be running on the same lines for the most part, there are just too many conflicts, and both services suffer greatly as a result.

  14. You either seem to forget or that you don’t know, in 1970 nearly all of America’s railroads decided almost all at once that they were going to drop all passenger service because it was losing so much money. The federal government was pretty much forced to create Amtrak out of whole cloth with very little notice or America was going to be totally without passenger rail service at a time that train travel was still much less than air flight. The Big 4 railroads have absolutely no desire at all to get back into the passenger business.
    As you can see, if it weren’t for the “intrusive government” there wouldn’t be a single passenger train running in the US today and that goes for suburban commuter rail as well as urban rapid transit.

  15. Who exactly do you think operates and funds the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in and around Washington, DC? Congress directly funds it and the organization is itself a federal agency.

  16. Cause and effect. The goverment(s) piled on the taxation and regulations making it too expensive to operate passenger service, the people who run the railroads want to get out of it. Back off on taxation and regulation and it becomes viable for private companies again. Just like the city bus services. The government was not “forced” to create Amtrak at all; they induced its creation. The intrusive government created the problem that they “solved” by creating government agencies to run passenger trains they made too expensive for the private sector to run.

  17. If you knew anything, you’d know that what killed the profitability of long distance passenger service, you’d know it was the day in 1967 that the Post Office discontinued all mail by rail service, shifting first class mail to air mail and all other classes by truck.

  18. That was only one factor. Subsidizing the infrastructure of the other “modes” and giving them tax breaks (i.e. road and air) while (as I am getting tired of pointing out) piling the regulation and taxation onto the railroads led to the (government-run) Postal Service contract terminations being the final straw. I think I know the historical context without omitting facts as you do; profitability of passenger rail did not hinge on mail transportation.

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