U.S. Finally Legalizes Modern, European-Style Train Cars

Photo:  Cramos/Wikimedia
Photo: Cramos/Wikimedia

Rail fans, rejoice. Federal rules no longer bar U.S. passenger rail systems from using modern, lightweight train cars.

This week, the Federal Railroad Administration finalized new safety rules [PDF] that bring American standards more in line with those used in Europe — changes that will save American commuter rail operators money and passengers time. Under the new rules, old, heavy trains can now be replaced with lighter, sleeker, more-modern models.

Meeting the Federal Railroad Administration’s onerous and antiquated safety rules has been a big problem for passenger rail operators that use the Federal Railway System (commuter rail and inter-city rail, like Amtrak). The U.S. doesn’t have a very large domestic train car market, so importing train cars from Europe and Asia is often the cheapest and lowest-risk option.

But FRA rules had required significant design changes. Most important, American train cars had to be built to withstand 800,000 pounds of frontal impact. Former Amtrak CEO David Gunn complained U.S. trains had to be designed like “high-velocity bank vaults.” Rather than just bulk up, European and Asian trains instead are designed to absorb impacts and avoid collisions in the first place. And they have better safety records.

In the past, transit agencies and Amtrak had to order trains from European or Asian suppliers and then modify the cars to meet American standards — which often caused big problems. Philadelphia’s SEPTA system, for example, had to return 120 brand new rail cars thanks to an engineering defect in 2016.

The new rules will help minimize those problems.

“The modifications that will be necessary to adapt European designs will be very minimal,” said Sandy Johnston, a Boston-based transportation planner and writer of the blog Interant Urbanist. “Every time something has to be modified it introduces additional expense and complication.”

American trains will now be more energy efficient and cheaper thanks to the changes, added Johnson. They will also be more likely to have features that prevent overcrowding, like open gangways.

A small wonky group of urbanist writers and policy experts like Stephen Smith and Marc Scribner have called for the reforms since the early part of the decade. The regulation has been slowly making its way through the federal regulatory process since 2013, and received a final push during the waning days of the Obama Administration. Now it is official.

150 thoughts on U.S. Finally Legalizes Modern, European-Style Train Cars

  1. It’s actually making much better crashworthiness standards. You don’t know jack shit about what you’re talking about.

    They’ve done actual crash tests — the European-spec trains protect passengers BETTER in a crash than the US 1940s “rolling bank vault” designs.

  2. Amtrak has legal right-of-way. But talk to the dispatchers at the CN or UP or CSX office, and you’ll discover that they are “encouraged” to dispatch freight trains ahead of passenger trains, even though this is totally illegal.

    To BNSF’s credit, their dispatchers follow the law. (So do CP’s, for whatever reason.)

  3. OK, maybe if you’re under the age of 8, you can be excused for not realizing that you shouldn’t be playing on the train tracks. But in that case, it’s your parents’ fault.

    Most people hit by trains are actually committing suicide. Nearly all of the remainder are complete dumbasses who think they can “beat the train” and deserve to be hit by trains.

    Very, very occasionally someone gets stuck on tracks due to an equipment malfunction or something — I think it’s happened twice in the last 10 years in the entire US.

  4. The European-spec “crumple zone” train designs are flat out safer than the 1940s US “rolling bank vault” designs, so there will be *fewer* injuries, and they’ll be *less* severe.

  5. It is unfortunate that YOU were ill-informed. The Streetsblog piece is 100% correct; Max Wyss and several of the other commenters including myself have provided additional details.

    The European specs, with “crumple zones”, are flat-out safer in every way under every circumstance. They’ve actually done crash tests to prove it.

    The PTC safety system improvements will also help, but even with no signalling at all, the new design rules are just flat out safer.

    “Rolling bank vaults”, like the old 1940s US rules called for, are unsafe.

  6. Chicago Metra will likely buy the old cars, they just grabbed some old VRE coaches that were originally on the CNW lines. This stuff must have been built 70 years ago.

  7. I’m betting he’s never set foot outside of the US and all he knows about life in the EU or Japan is from the screeds* on AM talk radio.

    * “They’re all poor!” ‘They’re all socialists!” “They all want to come to the US for health care!” /sigh

  8. Metra only buys bilevels / gallery cars. At this point I think they’ve bought all the old bilevels & gallery cars there are left in North America.

  9. Addendum: He later posted that he’s visited some miserable parts of Africa and Asia. I.e. “All I’ve ever seen is a few dysfunctional third-world countries. That means the entire planet except for ‘Murrica is covered with dysfunctional third-world countries.”

    You just can’t make this stuff up.

  10. I don’t doubt that, but given our court system ambulance-chasing attorneys and juries of our “peers”, all it’s going to take is one fatal crash and a large settlement to scare most railroads away from accepting the lighter cars on their tracks.

  11. Some juries aren’t bright enough to figure that out, and some lawyers are going to successfully make the “what if” argument.

  12. Sorry about that separate rail network mistake, but since the rail companies in Europe are owned by one major company per country, I.E,.national railways(SNCF in France, Belgum; Renfe Operadora in Spain; Deutsche Bahn in Germany; Ferrovie dello Stato in Italy; etc.), while here in the US we have at least a hundred rail companies. Also, 90% of all Freight in Europe is transported by roadways. And finally their track so much straighter than those in the US.

  13. This may save some money but lowest risk? Outside of Germany and Poland, nearly bupkis for freight is carried on it’s rails. Passenger rail cars have a small chance of encountering freight.

    In the US, freight is everywhere. Freight is just as common even on the Northeast Corridor. My concern would be that these rule changes threw out the baby along with the bath water.

  14. Well that’s why you do what everybody else has done and introduce a decent ATP or Train stop system. Here in the UK, TPWS (Train Protection and Warning System) has more or less reduced the chances of a train on train collision to zero.
    The French have had KVB for decades, the Germans have PZB, hell even something as simple as a tripcock and train stop system like that used on London Underground and in New South Wales in Oz would help. New systems like ETCS are becoming widespread, but are unlikely to be adopted by the US because the it includes the word Europe in the name…..

  15. Canada purchased the redundant ‘Nightstar’ stock from EPS (BR/SNCF joint venture set up to operate Channel Tunnel services) in the 90s. Their regulations have been far more relaxed for decades.

  16. 6 passengers died in one of the worst British rail accidents, 17 (!) years ago. Turning the passenger train into a tank would have increased the collision energy and quite possibly would have made the collision even a greater mess and quite possibly caused even more lethalities.

    What was the safety record of the highway system of your home region alone in the last 17 years?

  17. In Austria the main rail corridor features a very busy mix of freight rail and 230 km/h fast passenger trains.

  18. THe reason for the regulations were not for trains colliding. There are a variety of causes of accidents, a limited number of which PTC may prevent. Many, if not most, are beyond the reach of PTC. These regulations were in place to ensure if something goes wrong, less people are hurt or even die.

    Statistically non eo f us will ever need to where a seat belt. it’s the smart thing to do because it has a very small marginal cost and huge pay offs.

  19. Over 400 rail companies in Germany[1], for example; however, most tracks are owned by DB, and there’s regulatory control so everyone can drive there for reasonable fees.
    [1] The smallest started out as a female ex-DB train driver and one WW II era electric locomotive, hauling heavy freight for short-term needs all over the place; I believe these days, she’s up to two engines.

  20. Turns out, there is actually no definition of what makes something a continent, and different areas of the world disagree.

  21. Meh, I like the old cars better. Don’t understand this obsession with meeting Europe’s standards. Considering our system as a whole is very different from Europe’s, and railway accidents as a whole are very rare. It’d be better to invest in systems that will prevent the accidents in the first place.

    The Euro trains are just ugly as well. Like most modern cars they just look like big blobs of plastic.

  22. It’s actually a nice and helpful piece of information. I’m happy that you shared this useful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

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