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. The FRA really needs to get its act together and get these changes made. It killing the rail industry in NA.

  2. Not to mention it requires more energy to get a heavier car up to speed than a lighter one.

  3. Please get your facts straight. The premise of this article is now dead wrong.

    FRA rules now allow “alternative compliance” with crash requirements in a different way: (1) crumple zones on car ends, and (2) steel cages around passenger areas that meet 500-ton crush tests, which is similar to the 800,000 lb. requirement but far less onerous. Proof in the pudding: railcars manufactured by Stadler Rail of Switzerland are used by the Denton County Transportation Authority, and are now allowed to operate in mixed traffic with freight trains. https://www.google.com/search?site=&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1551&bih=1466&q=a+train&oq=a+train&gs_l=img.3..0l10.1731.2448.0.2680.….0…1ac.1.64.img..1.6.655.XFdnvJmjm7o#tbm=isch&q=denton+a+train

    FRA has also approved larger Stadler trains under the same regulations for TexRail operating out of Fort Worth, which should start service in 2018 or 2019. https://www.google.com/search?site=&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1551&bih=1466&q=texrail&oq=texrail&gs_l=img.3..0i10l2j0i10i24j0i24l7.1467.3195.0.3467.….0…1ac.1.64.img..0.7.614…0j0i5i30j0i5i10i30.r5lrQBkByiA

  4. I wonder how much it is due to incidents occurring around the world however. A few years ago, we had the crash in Spain and just recently two passenger trains in Italy crashed into each other on single track territory resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries. So with these in mind, it’s not necessarily going to be good PR if or more like, when, these incidents will happen and people go “why did the FRA reduce their safety standards?”

    By the way, it should be noted that RTD believe their EMU-5 are fine and do not need to be taken out of service due to updates in the design that prevents the issues that SEPTA’s have..

  5. Granting temporal separation rules on a new-build regional line with semi-regular freight traffic is a totally different animal from allowing SEPTA to run a 100+ MPH Stadler FLIRT as-is on the NEC, with legacy Acelas and push-pull sets to consider.

  6. Good lord, I wish Congress or the President ould just require UIC standards replace of FRA’s loony idea of safety.

  7. They already did, all passenger railcars are built by foreign companies today. Budd and Pullman are long dead

  8. Both Budd and Pullman stopped building rail cars in 1987 after car orders dwindled away over the years.

  9. Is there evidence that the US has a better passenger rail safety track record than Europe though? We’ve had recent crashes with fatalities on Amtrak in Philadelphia and Metro-North to name a few…

  10. “This makes American trains much heavier than European and Asian models, as well as more expensive to build and operate.” I’d think this would motivate conservatives and liberals alike to want to come up with a way to make this cheaper. Disappointed this hasn’t worked out yet.

  11. Caltrain was also granted a waiver for the Stadler KISS to go along with their electrification project. The noteworthy part of theirs is that the simulations showed that the non-compliant equipment actually performed better in a collision than equipment that meets current FRA rules.

  12. I think the point here is that these ad hoc exemptions are all well and good, but you have to be a very determined agency to go through the exhaustive process of getting an exemption. Aligning regulatory standards with the rest of the world would mean that agencies that don’t have the time or money to go through the exemption process can just buy normal European or Asian trains off the shelf.

  13. It’s two approaches to the same problem: preventing accident deaths. The rest of the world invests in things like PTC (easy when most RR networks are nationalized) to prevent accidents. American railroads, being privately run, simply build more crashworthy vehicles.

    Let’s say passenger cars are given a total exemption. What happens if a Euro-spec pax car hits a USA-spec centerbeam? The centerbeam will survive, the former will not. And that means more people will die.

    90% of the stuff moved by rail in the US is freight, it’s in the FRA’s best interest to center their policy around them. As a result, it’s in our best interest to build our own pax-exclusive networks around it all.

  14. Are you unaware of the Italian crash 2 days ago? 23 people dead when the light Euro rail cars were obliterated.

    Nice timing, publisher.

  15. Well, it’s great that we have such high standards for rail cars; because we are running such a respectable rail service here in the US – the envy for the rest of the world.

    This is so laughable. We should imitate what other countries do for at least 20 years, until our train service is as good as elsewhere. THEN we can start to improve things in our own backyard.

  16. As opposed to the Chatsworth crash, where 25 people died despite the fact that the train was being led by a locomotive and all the bilevel cars were built to the arbitrary FRA standards?

  17. Those two railroads use rolling stock made in the 70’s and 90’s. Amtrak’s Amfleets were manufactured back in 1975 and the Metro North’s Shoreliner IV in 1998 before the current FRA rules were put in place.

  18. Metrolink has since updated their rolling stock to include crumple zones because of that incident.

  19. or the Valhalla, Westchester County crash in February 2015, where 5 passengers died on Metro-North after an SUV driver stopped at a rail crossing in traffic…

    But going back to the Italian crash on Tuesday, it makes more sense to look at the cause of the crash than the strength of the rail cars.
    From NYT today:
    “The operation of the railway stretch between Corato and Andria came under harsh criticism in the national media on Wednesday. It relies on an obsolete system in which station masters call one another to warn of approaching trains using the same track. The trains that collided on Tuesday were using a single track, in a section with no automatic braking system…

  20. I was going to make that same point, Jericho!
    “Denver’s Commuter Rail Cars: Same as SEPTA’s But Without the Defects,” Jul 11, 2016
    The RTD cars reinforce Angie’s point — they are 5,000 lbs. lighter than SEPTA’s. I think that may be because the A Line to the airport runs on a non-freight line. There are a few other differences between the the Silverliner V cars, described in the original BillyPenn article as the difference between a “Boeing 737-500 to a 737-900er.”

  21. Michael,
    Wow! You certainly know your stuff!

    Yes, I wrote about the Caltrain EMUs some time ago:
    “FRA Grants Electrification Waiver For Commuter Rail Line – A First,” May 30, 2010 (although I see that may need correction — it may not have been the first!) In any case, the post indicates:

    “Although common in Europe, the smaller electric trains are illegal in the United States because federal officials have long considered them too small, poorly designed and unsafe. But after three years of tests and research, Caltrain will become the first railroad in the nation to use the technology after being granted a waiver….”

    Here’s the local article on the JPB’s approval last Thursday on the go-ahead for electrification, including the new cars, your reservations notwithstanding.

  22. Most passenger service does not run concurrent with freight in the USA anymore. Passenger trains mostly run on state-owned rails; this is certainly the case with SEPTA.

    During the 50s and 60s, the trend was towards lighter-weight passenger stock, too. The Pioneer III cars (SEPTA’s “Silverliner I”) had a maximum empty weight of 90,000 lbs.

  23. You’d have to rip out all the high platforms, then. FLIRTs are mostly low-floor cars built for low platforms (standard floor height above rail is about 22″ but some models go up to 30¾”, which is 17 inches shorter than US high platform height of 48″); they’re also a foot narrower than Silverliners.

  24. Caltrain’s really botching up their electrification. Should have just gotten ALP-46s to haul their existing push-pull fleet.

  25. IINM, the Bombardier cars in the Chatsworth accident were built to earlier AAR standards. And the Metrolink engineer ran a red light and was “distracted” by text messaging. Comparing two light electric multiple units hitting each other at 70 mph with two locomotives (one over 400,000 lbs and one close to 300,000 lbs) hitting trailer cars at 40 mph is apples/oranges besides.

  26. It’s not that their “orders dwindled” but that foreign companies bought them (Budd by Thyssen, Pullman by Bombardier) and removed them from their respective businesses (at least in Budd’s case). American Car and Foundry (ACF) is still around, but is much smaller today and builds only freight cars.

  27. If we imitated what other countries do, we’d end up with rail having a 5 percent share of freight, and trucks as far as the eye could see. What was done with the freight end of the business needs to be done with the passenger end, as far as intrusive government is concerned.

  28. I prefer passenger cars at 10′ 6″ width rather than a foot narrower. I also prefer the higher axle loads so more freight can be moved on the rails instead of the highways.

  29. Half the story there. SEPTA needs the trapdoors due to the legacy low platforms. It also needs the automatic variable-tap transformers in case Amtrak suddenly decides to change their electrification from 12,000 volts 25 Hertz to 25,000 volts 60 Hertz like they had originally planned to do in the 1980s (the lines SEPTA owns would stay at the older voltage/frequency).

    Also, 5,000 lbs is not that much difference in weight; it puts the EMU-5s at 141,600 lbs per car versus SEPTA’s 146,600 lbs. The Silverliner I was much lighter at 90,000 lbs per car.

  30. You would have not been happy during the age of heavyweight plate-steel cars, which were among the first to get AC. Average weight range was between 130,000 and 170,000 lbs, which required them to ride on a total of six axles per car; some weighed over 210,000 lbs, which puts them in the range of a light passenger locomotive.

  31. But the same Bombardier cars, including some ex-Metrolink equipment, are definitely still in service with transit agencies all over the country. Also, the new “Guardian Fleet” cars are made by Hyundai-Rotem as well and the agency has put forth nearly $20mn to lease BNSF locomotives to lead trains because there are safety concerns in regards to the new cab cars after one malfunctioned in a collision last year. They’re just getting around to finding a fix for them.

  32. Perhaps, they’re also trying to make a CAHSR-compatible-but-not-really network. But the ALPs would also do well on the Metrolink San Bernardino Line if they could ever convince themselves to electrify it, which certainly does need to be done and might as well be combined with the ongoing double-tracking efforts.

  33. It takes more time and certainly more money to buy new rolling stock than to refurbish and when CalTrain needs equipment NOW, it’s a no brainer. You’re not exactly making a salient point here.

    As to the cowcatcher, poor workmanship is nothing new whether they were produced by an American company or foreign. American made rolling stock had issues of some form or another whether they were from GE, EMD, Bombardier, etc

    And as already mentioned, Hyundai Rotem used what they learned producing the Silverliner V not to make the same mistakes with RTD’s EMU-5.

  34. Funny thing is, that line was electrified when Pacific Electric ran it. Metrolink operates on the portions that were not street running.

  35. The Bombardier “coffin cars” are made of aluminum and lack end-to-end rigidity due to their split level design. A gallery type car would have performed better.

  36. 93% of accidents are not PTC preventable, which includes all grade crossing incidents. Increasing crash-worthiness protects against all accidents at once as opposed to spending billions to prevent a few certain types of accident.

    European railroads not only cost much more to operate and maintain than US railroads, they also don’t operate the type of freight that we do that presents a constant derailment hazard.

  37. Railroads could isolate their systems and run as rapid transit, but that comes with its own set of problems and won’t solve the issue of grade crossing safety.

  38. Conservatives and liberals alike both want to see jobs stay in the US and “off the shelf” means imported from Europe or Asia.

    Also since we don’t spent money on maintenance we need vehicles that are robust enough to not need it. Most Euro-spec equipment will fall apart on American spec rails and maintenance schedules.

  39. Amtrak Superliner II cars use the same trucks and weigh 148,000 lbs, compared to 125k for a Silverliner V. This was a manufacturing problem, not a design problem.

  40. Fewer people die per accident in US crashes. Especially grade crossing accidents. It’s even better when you discount deaths caused by fire, instead of structural failure.

  41. We don’t even need PTC given the low number of deaths in PTC preventable accidents. It is worth 15 billion dollars to save about 10 people a year?

  42. I’ll be shocked if light Euro-stock will last the requisite 40 years on American maintenance. Also, after an accident you usually have to write off Euro-spec vehicles, where American style cars can be repaired and put back in service. Grade crossing accidents will decimate the Caltrain fleet.

  43. “Also since we don’t spent money on maintenance we need vehicles that are robust enough to not need it.” Ha. That’s grimly hilarious, and of course, true.

  44. It’s even more true than that. The Feds fund capitol purchases like new railcars while transit agencies are on the hook for operating expenses. You want to buy cars that cost more up front if they cost less to maintain.

    When was the last time you saw a European car that was cheap to maintain?

  45. I don’t honestly pay that close attention to procurement, but that’s interesting. I didn’t quite realize that was the dynamic (I thought agencies bought their own cars). That reminds me of when the federal government helped pay for suburban expansion in the 20th century (roads, utility lines, sewers) and how we’re now in a place where the towns they’re in can barely afford to maintain them.

  46. The salient point is that the Bombardier Bi-Levels are FRA-compliant and continue to be in use around the country even though we know that the results of a crash is similar to what happened in Italy because it has happened here before.

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