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.

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

  1. > 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.

  2. So a safe manufacturer demonstrates the quality of their safes. They put a mouse in a safe and drop it off the Empire State Building. Running down to the sidewalk and removing the safe from they crater it formed they say, “It is still functioning perfectly! Too bad about the mouse.”

  3. This is false as others have mentioned with European examples.

    Japan, China and Korea all have shared passenger and freight. They also have high speed lines that are 100% passenger, much akin to the NEC or the CAHSR.

  4. A lighter or heavier train is still going to win against an idiot in an SUV.

    Even European narrow gauge (trams)streetcars win those battles.

  5. Not true. If a lightweight train has crumple zones, for passengers, the difference is between crashing into a wall vs sand barrier. It might change a 20 g force impact into a longer 5 g force impact which can be survived.

  6. There’s enough blame to go around. Trump could’ve just signed off on the regulations last year, but was afraid on signing something that came from Obama era. He also withheld Caltrain funds that would make use of these new rules for no reason other than increase costs. And that he did. Caltrain burned an extra $30 million on the delay.

  7. Also Paris. I rode open-gangway Métro cars ~20 years ago. I.e. the technology’s well-established but operators in the US are either unaware of it or unwilling to adopt it. My old hometown Philly recently had a major tragedy when a kid slipped and was killed while trying to go between two of its (relatively new) closed-gangway cars.

  8. The lowest barrier to replacing the Cascades trainsets would almost certainly be to extend the contract Caltrans/Illinois/Amtrak already have with Siemens for new passengers trains to go with the brand new hybrid Siemens Charger SC-44 locomotives.

    They start going into service in 2020 with a cab car designed to exactly match the locomotive. They are the same wide-body, high-platform passenger cars which just started operating on Florida’s Brightline (soon to be Virgin Trains) and already have FRA approval.

  9. I’m not sure about passenger safety, but the lighter-weight trains are certainly more efficient (less climate impact) and safer for anyone walking, cycling, or driving across or near the tracks!

  10. Since 80% of the world lives in a junkyard I don’t get the catch up deal. However after 40 years as a railroad engineer, operating 15000 ton unit coal trains and 125 mph Amtrak Metroliners I can attest to the unsafe move to relax crashworthiness standards!

  11. Guessing you’ve never left your country then? Open your eyes and look at the junkyard infrastructure in your backyard (unburied ugly power lines strung on leaning wooden poles (most places bury power lines), potholed roads, broken sidewalks, rusty bridges, uneven, warped rail lines etc.). I rode a Northeast Regional from NY to Philly and back in 2015, the ride was so rough it was scary. The old train cars (Amfleet?) look like something out of a Soviet-era horror story. The vibration was crazy.

  12. You’re just bummed Canada wanted to leave American union because of how bad things are going, now US economy is alone

  13. Other countries’ passenger trains and systems are far superior in the UK, Europe, Japan, China and soon to be Southeast Asia. Not junkyards, actually far ahead of the US on building modern infrastructure.

  14. Signalling systems are definitely different, but PTC is narrowing the gap a little bit.

    Dedicated rights of way is not that common, although it depends a bit on who has priority, and in Europe, it is passenger trains. But aside of the S-Bahn networks, there is mixed operation, in particular on the trans-alpine trunk routes. The situation is eased a bit, as the European freight trains are faster.

    No further comments about USAn drivers…

  15. Well, with cars… I don’t have numbers, but the average weight of a car in the US is definitely higher than in Europe, for example (although Europe is working on fattening up…)

  16. >Since 80% of the world lives in a junkyard I don’t get the catch up deal.

    And that’s all we need to know to not take you seriously at all. You’re obviously insulated and have no clue what you’re talking about.

  17. Neither BART nor Caltrain went with open gangway cars because passenger capacity is not as bad or not as important as saving money on shorter trains off–peak.

  18. ‘Cheap skate car’.

    Seems you equate heavy with quality. If you ever compare a train ride in the U.S. with any system in Europe, you will be confronted with the error of this thinking.

  19. It’s too bad. With all those years of experience you really could have added something valuable to this conversation had you ever had the interest in looking beyond your own nationalistic horizons.

  20. These regulations were made before modern mechanical engineering, computers and computational tools and new materials, better alloy and carbon composite material. They now hold back progress including safety on the railroad. Consider the modern passenger car to a 1950’s car which is much heavier with much more metal. Yet the modern car will protect you from a crash even a high speed one much better. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner carbon composite construction results in an airplane both lighter and stronger than previous aluminum alloy aircraft. Modern vehicles are designed to dissipate energy from a crash away from the passengers inside. This can be scaled up in vehicle size and velocity. Positive train control is capital intensive, as well as railroading in general but much more can be transported on the same track with a much better safety record, so provided the railroads can get the capital to pay for it in a reasonable manner they will go with it where appropriate. That goes for electrification too.. Wake up its the 21th century and engineering has progressed since the 1950’s. We know physics, materials, controls and sensors better than you do or the law makers that cling to obsolete regulations because they do not know about science and engineering these days.

  21. I think you misspoke. There are not separate rail networks but rather a centralized management structure where timetables, pricing, and capital improvement projects are made in systems outside of the U.S. This is the major difference and it takes away the motivation for different stakeholders to be confrontational with one another.

  22. The U.S.: we are unable to improve train travel because of engineering guidelines from the 1950s
    Also U.S.: Here is a truckload of public money to build a not yet existent private train underground

    Break it up. It’s too big.

  23. Interesting point. Phila is different, though, b/c they run 6-car trains at all times. My suspicion is that their decision was purely based on bottom-line costs per car.

  24. Lighter weight trains will still completely cream any pedestrians, cyclists, or drivers.

  25. That’s like saying all these heavy SUVs in the US make our roads safer and more efficient.

  26. This is very, very great news. PATH system in particular will love it, since I think these rules applied to them since they run next to heavy rail tracks.

    Question — does Canada now follow suit? As with most things, they probably had to go along with whatever the US wanted in the past. I wonder if they will now also allow lighter trains, or did they already?

  27. Well BNSF is doing their best (or worst) to keep the heavy Metra cars on their line:
    “Following a Monday freight train derailment at the Metra Cicero stop, the west suburban station will remain closed through Tuesday rush hour.

    About 6 p.m., the freight train jumped off the tracks as it was pulling into the inbound platform, according to a Metra alert. Only one track for the station was operable Monday night, snagging service in both directions by up to a half-hour.

    Inbound trains at the Cicero station were canceled for Tuesday morning until the platform canopy was repaired, Metra said.”

  28. I have been to 8 African countries and 6 Asian countries most of the places are dumps or if you prefer shitholes ! LOL

  29. This is great news indeed. The rub is, will Amtrak ever get the funding to upgrade its cars to a more European/Asian design standard? I know there are a lot of other lines in the US being developed by private investors, so perhaps this will have more of an effect there. And there are also commuter lines, whose cars look like they haven’t changed since the 1970s. Take a ride on Metro North out of Grand Central for one example.

  30. PTC (positive train control) makes the risk of collisions much less likely. US regulations were the result of a higher collision rate that shouldn’t be the case in the future.

  31. Actually, PATH (formerly Hudson & Manhattan Railroad) is under FRA legislation, but not because they are running parallel to the former Pennsylvania Railroad.

    This is why they definitely could get something from the new regulation. I could imagine some light rail design (although traffic does require rather long trains).

  32. The Metro-North cars are as sleek as the recent laws allowed. It will be exciting to see the next generation, though. And whatever amtrak replaces its 60s “Amfleet” with.

  33. And likely blowing smoke about the rest… every amtrak and metro-north engineer and conductor I’ve every met have always envied EU/Asian rails… they’ll be over the moon on this news.

  34. Canada tends to move faster; their regulations were already closer to Europe’s than the US. They’ll probably follow suit within *days*.

  35. Yeah, you’re a dumbass who has never bothered to learn anything about the topic.

    The old 1940s US train car rules were “tanks on rails”, which is actually really unsafe. The new rules allow for crumple zones, which are MUCH SAFER.

  36. Yes. Before this, the US didn’t allow crumple zones on trains (!?!?) and requires that they be built like bank vaults on wheels. It was plain plumb stupid.

    The new rules will have much safer trains.

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