Friday, November 1, 2013

Coming FRA rule changes will boost passenger rail, cut costs, maintain safety

Little bureaucratic rule changes can sometimes make a big difference. And a pending rule change at the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees safety on America's railways, will drastically cut costs, improve reliability, and maintain or increase safety standards.

The FRA has traditionally focused on safety in terms of "collision survival" while its European and Japanese counterparts have evolved to think of it as "collision avoidance." As a result, other countries have invested heavily in Positive Train Control systems, which track train location and speed and automatically stop trains to avoid collisions. In contrast, the U.S. has stayed with a traditional safety style of armoring its trains to protect occupants in a collision.

Despite several high-profile crashes, European passenger rail systems have a sterling safety record  Many U.S. rail corridors are investing in PTC technology to meet an FRA deadline of 2015 to install it on all Class I railroad mainlines. The mandate may be delayed, but the Northeast corridor and major Amtrak routes are making progress on the mandate (notably in Michigan and Illinois)

But for now, this difference in regulations also means that it's illegal for standard European and Japanese train designs to run on U.S. tracks, which are considerably ahead of their U.S counterparts technologically. (They invested in passenger rail between 1950 and 2000, while we abandoned it in favor of highways and air travel.)

As a result, we need to special-order train sets that cost more. The transit expert Alon Levy has estimated  that the incoming Amtrak City Sprinter locomotive costs 35 percent more than the established European design that it's based on -- which works out to around $70-150 million for the order. (That's enough money to make significant improvements on a moderately traveled medium-distance Amtrak train route)

Worse yet, the heavier trains consume more fuel and often cost more to maintain due to the increased wear and tear the extra weight places on things like braking systems (which also degrades safety).

The pending FRA rule change will greatly ease many of the obsolete standards to allow modern European designs onto U.S railways, which will ease the issues of cost and poor performance that plague intercity AMTRAK equipment and American commuter rail systems.

The rule improvement is important, but it isn't isolated -- It's part of a slow and steady change that's been coming over the American passenger rail system for the last decade or so.

For example, despite its problems caused in part existing weight rules, the AMTRAK Sprinter order (which will serve on standard-speed NE corridor and the eastern Pennsylvania Keystone service) actually is an improvement over past practices. First, the order is large enough that it will spread the costs over a reasonably number of units (70) instead of past orders, which relied on as few as 16 units. Second, it standardizes the locomotives in use for the NE Regional Service, currently operates three different locomotives. which should ease training costs, and lower maintenance form the current investments necessary to maintain the three locomotives currently used in the service. And finally, the Sprinter does represent a number of improvements in performance and efficiency from its predecessors.

So two cheers for the bureaucrats who finally look like they are getting this one rule right. I'll take any piece of good news on public policy these days. And here's hoping that the changing culture at the FRA can keep looking forward to ease the expansion of rail travel in the United States (which is up 50 percent on Amtrak since 2001.)

Now, if only we could get some follow-on investment from the feds in rail capital improvements, and fewer governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich and Rick Scott.

H/T to  Atrios and Robert Cruickshank


  1. How many deaths and serious injuries would there have been at Santiago had the Spanish railcars been constructed to American standards? There appears to have been partial telescoping and complete separation from the undercarriage with at least one car.

    1. I couldn't tell you. But I do know that even rugged cars built to U.S. safety standards don't stop many injuries and deaths, even at much slower speeds. The Chatsworth accident showed us that.

    2. Actually, I think that the Chatsworth accident may argue for the opposite. First, Chatsworth was a head-on collision with closing speed roughly equivalent to the Santiago speed at impact. The physics of a head-on accident are far more severe - with a far great transfer of force - than a sidelong crash. Second, the passenger cars at Chatsworth were double-decker commuter cars. These cars have a much more dense seating pattern with less padding than long-distance coach seats. Even so, with roughly the same numer of passengers and crew on board, the Metrolink train had less than 1/3 the number of fatalities. That suggests that U.S. design specs do reduce fatalities and severity of injury. Given the number of unprotected and gated grade crossings in the United States compared to European grade separation, I think it would be imprudent to dispense with American safety standards. Budd achieved a significant weight savings while increasing strength in its lightweight designs of the late 1930s and 1940s. I believe such a technological breakthrough is possible given SOME modifications of U.S. standards. I do not believe it wise to adopt European railcar standards, however.

    3. I won't challenge your technical detail, but it is worth noting that Chatsworth wouldn't have taken place without a proper PTC system that would have stopped the Metrolink train from proceeding in the first place. In general, I am in favor of uprating, grade separating and closing down at -grade crossings, like many routes in the U.S. are steadily doing (see Illinois and the Keystone lines for example) -- you're right that at-grade crossings are an issue in this country.

  2. American railcar manufacturers were allowed to die on the vine. It is hard to find a technology that surpassed Budd construction in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some of these cars are only now being retired from Amtrak and VIA after more than 50 years of service.

    Budd is gone. Pullman is gone.
    ACF hasn't built a passenger car in 60 years.

    1. I would agree that the lack of investment in our passenger railroads starting in the 1950s was quite short sighted from both an industrial policy and a transportation policy perspective.