How Federal Safety Regs Hurt Passenger Rail

European train design -- faster, safer, lighter, cheaper...
European train design — faster, safer, lighter, cheaper…

by James A. Bacon

There has been increasing interest in passenger rail around the United States in recent years but the high cost of building and operating rail systems has posed a major barrier. One reason rail service is so expensive, writes David Edmondson for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is that Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety regulations lock U.S. trains into antiquated standards based on 1945 technology.

FRA regulations require train undercarriages to withstand 800,000 pounds of force without permanent defamation, explains Edmondson in “Reducing Passenger Train Procurement Costs.” The purpose of this “buff strength” requirement is to ensure that train cars can resist the impact of other cars. That may have made sense in 1945 when the standard was implemented, but European and Japanese train design has taken very different directions since then. In Europe train cars are built with crumple zones in non-occupied areas, reducing the need for rigid buff strength of only 337,200 pounds. Not only are European cars just as safe, Edmonson asserts, but trains are lighter, allowing them to decelerate and stop more quickly, and they are less prone to “telescoping,” in which the force of a crash causes passenger cars to climb over one another with devastating effect.

As a result, American trains are more expensive to build, weigh twice as much, require more energy to move, wreak havoc on rail infrastructure built for lighter cars, degrade performance and cost more to operate. Perhaps worst of all, because European (and Japanese) train designs are effectively precluded from the U.S. market, foreign manufacturers anticipate shorter manufacturing runs and charge more per train.

Thus, when Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) purchased trains for its new system in 2009, the least expensive option came from a Japanese coalition that charged 50% more, $3.3 million per unit. When Acela ordered trains from a European consortium, Edmondson contends, the result was a “Frankenstein’s monster” that today faces frequent breakdowns and incurs expensive maintenance.

The FRA, suggests Edmondson, “could easily address this problem by adopting European design standards. This would give U.S. transit agencies access to a vast array of more affordable and effective vehicles. … The FRA should also move beyond crash survival and start to focus on crash prevention. Positive train control, which can significantly reduce the incidence of crashes, is an important piece in this puzzle, but the FRA does not take stopping distance into account when evaluating a train’s safety.” He continues:

The requirements force Amtrak and transit authorities across the country to purchase custom-made trains that are unnecessarily expensive, underperform, and do not meet the best safety practices of the rest of the world.

Bacon’s bottom line:

As I have argued repeatedly, the United States needs to invest in rail mass transit and inter-city rail — but we cannot afford the massive capital and operating subsidies that rail requires. One approach — the brain-dead approach — is simply to lobby for bigger grants and subsidies from federal and state governments whose finances are increasingly precarious and unsustainable. Even if we get the rail service established, if it loses money, there is no assurance that we can maintain it in the future.

A better approach is to understand why rail is so economically uncompetitive. How can taxpayers capture more of the economic value created by their infrastructure investments? How can we reduce union featherbedding and improve labor productivity? And how can we reform federal regulations to encourage more design innovation and promote competition? Edmondson addresses the third of those questions. As a society, we must confront them all. If we don’t re-think passenger rail transportation from stem to stern, rail will never amount to more than a costly, niche transportation option.

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10 responses to “How Federal Safety Regs Hurt Passenger Rail”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    A world class article!

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    North American cities are too small and too far apart. In places where there is substantial “city density”, such as DC to Boston, high speed rail is economical. Otherwise, no.

    Changing the ancient regulations to lower the cost would make more rail more economical. I just wonder if the US will ever have the profile of Japan or western Europe.

  3. larryg Avatar

    Another fine article, but I have to say anytime I see something from organizations that is aligned with their mission/agenda, I like to see one other entity without a similar agenda agreement.

    If the premise is actual reality, it’s scandalous given the importance and promise but also remember that passenger rail runs on heavier duty CSX freight rail

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Good piece but there may be a reason for the 1945 regs. Back then, as now, most trains operated on the same lines regardless of whether they are passenger or rail. There aren’t many dedicated passenger lines. If you do have them, as the Europeans and Japanese (I think CHinese?) do, it may be easier for traffic control and you need less as far as regs regarding impacts.

    1. Neil Haner Avatar
      Neil Haner

      Peter – the different standards have little to do with the shared traffic, but instead is about newer design strategies for dealing with the energies of a rail crash.

      Think in terms of automobiles. We can all agree that the size and weight of commercial trucks on US highways have only gone up over the last 50 years, just as has the percentage of traffic made up by those trucks. Yet at the same time, the weight of US passenger cars sharing those highways has gone down, yet the cars are somehow safer.

      What do cars today do differently? They crumple. They are designed such that the energy imparted during a collision gets directed through a frame designed to buckle and yield, which absorbs the impact energy, instead of distributing that energy through a rigid frame to the passengers.

      The current rail standards for the US are designed to keep the car frames rigid during an impact. This is an outdated design philosophy. It’s actually MORE dangerous to the passengers, causing greater deceleration forces to be imparted to the contents of the rail cars than they would if the car frames were allowed to buckle and absorb some of the energy.

      It really would be a win-win. Safer passenger trains as well as more efficient ones.

      FWIW, that kind of crumple technology is also used in building structural design in high seismic areas.

  5. larryg Avatar

    well… they running passenger trains on rails that also carry CSX freight.

    I’m still a bit skeptical here..

    Does Japan and Europe run passenger trains on freight rail?

    I’m always suspicious of “the regulation is bad” these days until I see more parties agree than just those whose missions are anti-regulation.

    we need an honest apples-to-apples analyses – that is backed up by more than one entity, preferably the 2nd has no anti-regulation perspective.

    1. If you’re wondering whether FRA-compliant and UIC-compliant trains are safe to run together, the answer is yes for crashes below 20MPH and no improvement for crashes above 20MPH, at least according to the FRA.

      The FRA’s study team, whose report I drew upon in part, believes that a crash above 20MPH between an FRA-compliant train and a UIC-compliant train would probably overwhelm the UIC train’s crash protections and lead to some loss of occupied volume. However, the team also believes a similar crash between two FRA-compliant trains would result in one train overriding the other with the same general outcome. (See PDF-page 42, paragraph 1.)

      In other words, in one crash the UIC train gets creamed, and in the other crash one of the two FRA trains gets creamed.

      Below 20MPH, the UIC train would perform better than the FRA train.

      1. For a vivid demonstration of the difference between FRA-compliant and UIC-compliant train designs, view the short video posted on Edmondson’s blog:

  6. Darrell Avatar

    Does Japan and Europe run passenger trains on freight rail?

    They do in the Rhine valley. There were several times I was waiting on a train platform and had a freight rig come screaming by. And I remember passing freighters and passengers on the trip from Vienna to Cologne.

    1. larryg Avatar

      the “crushability” vs “unyielding structure” dilemma is an issue anywhere and anytime you have vehicles of mixed sizes sharing the same guideway.

      for instance – when an 18-wheeler runs over a Toyota Yaris – to a certain extent the only thing that might save you might be a roll cage or similar – as opposed to a crushable zone, etc.

      but I’m still skeptical when an organization with a name “competitive enterprise” that has a known track record for opposing regulation in general – including pollution and workplace regulation is pontificating on such esoteric issues as railcar design.

      I do not write it off out of hand – but I’d like to see some concurring thoughts especially from those whose primary agenda is not anti-regulation.

      Between Richmond and Washington – we have some serious CSX freight rail that is primarily designed for carrying weight and not speed.

      on that same rail line we operate Amtrak as well as VRE but not Accela.

      VRE recently purchased 8 cars at 24 that”s 3 million each also.

      METRO recently purchased 448 cars at 880 million – about 2 million each – and that IS on a dedicated line without freight rail.

      I think I’m going to classify this as more-of-the-same anti-regulation narrative blather until I see some additional evidence from engineering entities who do not have an anti-regulation agenda.

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