How the FRA is Regulating Passenger Rail Out of Existence

What if the FAA required that jet aircraft be able to survive crashes into the ground?

Or if the FHA said automobiles had to survive any head-on crash at 60 mph into a tractor trailer without deformation?

Even if such vehicles could be engineered, they would be far too costly to operate. But for passenger trains, that is precisely what the FRA has been doing.

It is an arcane government agency few ever heard of. The Federal Railroad Administration was created in 1966 to set and enforce railway safety standards. And certainly in terms of safety, the FRA has been wildly successful passenger rail is perhaps the safest mode of transport in the US. But many rail advocates argue that the FRA regulations have not only come at too high a price (by making rail prohibitively expensive) but in many cases are completely nonsensical.

The Acela Fiasco

Amtrak’s botched attempt at a high-speed train is a good case study in the problems caused by the FRA. As originally designed, the Acela was supposed to provide high-speed rail service on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston, New York, and Washington DC with speeds as high as 150 mph.
Acela Express

In order to procure the world’s best off-the-shelf train for the least amount of money, Amtrak decided to buy an existing design from a European or Japanese manufacturer, who have decades of experience building and operating high-speed trains. The winner of this competition was a consortium of Bombadier and Alstom (the French TGV builder).

Then, in 1999 with Acela planning fully underway,
the FRA pulled the rug out by issuing regulations for high-speed rail service requiring trains to withstand 800,000 pounds force without deformation. The 800,000 figure is an arbitrary number dating back to the 1920s; this mandate has since been increased to 1 million pounds.

The buffering requirement confounded Bombadier. Train weight is of crucial importance as it affects the amount of track wear, noise, and energy costs. To meet the buffering regulation, the train would have to be significantly bulked-up. The result was a highspeed train nearly twice as heavy as its European counterparts. As such, the Acela has been described variously as a tank-on-wheels and a bank-vault-on-wheels. Indeed, an overweight train like Acela would be banned from the European high speed rail network.

Because the extra weight put so much strain on the train body (which was never designed to handle suchloads) trainsets suffered excessive wheel wear, cracks in the yaw damper and brake rotors, and other problems which can probably never be completely fixed. Whereas the original contract called for trains to run 400,000 miles between equipment failures, the Acela can barely manage 20,000 miles.

Buffering Standards

FRA staffers point out that it is unfair to compare US buffering standards with those in Europe because passenger rail in the US has to contend with more (and heavier) freight traffic. Like the soccer-Mom who thinks an SUV provides greater safety, the FRA figures collisions are inevitable and heavier is better. And just as an SUV is a hazard to other road users, the same is true with the Acela. Amtrak bitterly complained that the heavier Acela trains would be potentially lethal against lighter commuter trains on the NEC in the event of a collision.

And heaver trains are a lot more expensive to operate, which means higher fares and fewer trains running to fewer places. This in turn means travelers often resort to driving cars, which is 10-100 times more dangerous than rail travel. In other words, even if one accepts the premise that the excessive US buffering standards make train travel safer, they may in fact be counterproductive by diverting potential train riders to automobiles, causing many times more highway fatalities.

The TGV builders are famous for the efforts that have gone into weight reduction, such as this prototype honeycomb graphite composite carbody (photo: TGVweb).

Commuter Rail

Even when there is zero possibility of a passenger train colliding with a freight train, FRA buffering regulations still apply. These days, there are virtually no freight trains running on the Caltrain line, but Caltrain must still run its overweight, polluting, fuel gulping dinosaurs because the line connects to the national rail network.

The situation is particularly absurd when one looks at the Long Island Commuter Railroad (LIRR) in New York City, which has no freight traffic and a modern, automatic train control system to prevent collisions. Technically, it is still a freight railroad subject to FRA rules. Thus, the new M-7 railcars purchased by the New York MTA weigh an astonishing 125,000 lbs – twice the weight of a non-FRA compliant BART car on the off-chance an LIRR might collide with a 100-ton coal train in Manhattan.

Train Safety in the Rest of the World

European and Japanese rail operators believe the best way to survive a train accident is to simply not have one in the first place. Their design philosophy is to rely on modern signaling and proper maintenance to prevent collisions and derailments.

There are also smarter, better ways to improve accident survivability than just running heavier trains. One ingenious solution is the articulated cars used by the French TGV and Spanish Talgo. Whereas traditional railcars are joined by a simple coupler, an articulated train (as shown in the diagram) physically connects two railcars to the same truck so that they function as a single unit. This not only saves weight (by eliminating one truck per car) but increases the stability of the trainset. Also, it significantly reduces the chances of the train jack-knifing which has been credited with saving lives on a number of occasions (see
TGV accidents

An articulated train (see TGVweb).

Implications for the Bay Area

Assuming California’s budget mess can be fixed, the California High Speed Rail Commission (CAHSR) will build a 224 mph Los Angeles-San Francisco rail service. Because it may run on conventional tracks in urban areas, the trains might have to satisfy FRA Tier II rules. Officially, the CAHSR has no problem with the rules, but many question how the system could achieve operational self-sufficiency. An Acela-type train would incur prohibitively high track maintenance and electricity costs.

As well, the FRA rules could make it more expensive to implement the “eBART” type DMU extensions currently being studied by BART. A DMU is basically a bus on steel wheels. In Europe there are thousands of low-cost DMUs providing rail service to remote towns and villages, with populations as small as 4000 persons. It would be hard to provide a similar type of service in the US as long as the FRA requires DMUs to lug around tons of deadweight.

In both Europe and Japan, a competitive business exists in the DMU marketplace. But that market is off limits to US transit agencies because the FRA has effectively created a trade embargo. A company like Siemens would incur prohibitively high retooling costs in order to redesign its products for a niche market.

With no manufacturers available, transit agencies wanting to use DMU equipment in the US have had to take extraordinary measures. Sonoma-Marin rail planners, for example, at one point seriously studied the use of refurbished Budd RDC cars – which were manufactured some 50 years ago! In effect, a rolling museum on rails.

eBART Artist Rendition

13 Budd RDC cars were refurbished for use on the “Trinity Rail Express” in Dallas. With modern European and Japanese equipment off-limits, this antiquated 1950’s design is one of the few vehicles available to transit agencies running under FRA rules.

Hills and Curves

In the mountainous West, the FRA mandates make it impossible to run competitive rail service in hilly terrain. The deadweight necessitates low speed and/or excessive fuel consumption when climbing hills. On heavily-used passenger lines, greater weight reduces the amount of safe unbalanced superelevation i.e. how fast a train can go around curves. Because of the Acela’s inability to navigate curves on the New Haven line, a trip on the Acela Express from New York to Boston loses 30 minutes compared to best practice in tilt train usage and eliminating that 30 minutes by straightening curves would cost on the order of $1 billion.

The JR Hokkaido series 281 represents industry best practice in tilt DMU. The 3 hours it takes to travel the 200 mile Sapporo-Hakodate route on a line that is one-third curved is a very respectable result. The new 281 reduced journey time by 47 minutes and killed off air service between the two cities (see JR Hokkaido Keeps Ice and Snow at Bay and Railway Operators in Japan). Japan operates the world’s lightest and safest trains, but according to the FRA the 281 is unsafe.

Horn Blowing

Imagine you are at a railroad crossing. The gates are down, lights are flashing, bells ringing, a big giant locomotive with flashing lights can be seen speeding down the track. Heading out across the tracks would be crazy, but nonetheless 600 Darwin Award candidates get killed each year – usually by driving around the gates because they are too impatient to wait 30 seconds for the train to pass.

Would it make any difference to these drivers if the locomotive were also blasting a 100 decibel horn? The FRA seemed to think so. Traditionally, horn blasting regulations were determined locally, but in 1995 the FRA began a rulemaking process to Federalize regulations and in the process dramatically increase horn blasting by going after so-called “Quiet Zones” – i.e. places where whistle blowing was prohibited. Armed with a study that showed as many as 3(!) fatalities a year could be prevented, the FRA proposed rule would only allow Quiet Zones exemptions at crossings that had been improved with “four-quadrant” gates and curb medians.

In Illinois, which has 900 of the nearly 2000 whistle bans nationwide, cash-strapped local government would have to spend $116-234 million to meet the Federal mandate. Ironically, the FRA’s own numbers show that in Illinois, collisions at crossing with hornblowing bans were actually 4.5% less frequent than at crossings where horns were sounded.

Many communities throughout the US sprung up along rail lines. In the greater Chicago area (a major rail hub) some 1.2 million residents live within one quarter mile of a grade crossing. In Beverly, MA (a suburb of Boston) the lifting of the horn ban on the city’s 17 crossings would result in an average of two horns blowing every minute of every day.

Unlike other light rail systems in the nation, the NJT “River Line” is subject to FRA rules because it was built along an old freight spur. Thus, trains (which run every 15 minutes) have to blast their horn at each intersection, aggravating nearby residents (photo: NYC Subway).

Legitimate homeowner complaints over horn blasting makes it difficult to build political support for increased rail service. In her testimony before Congress, Rita Mullins, Mayor of Palatine, Illinois, notes the conflicting policies between Federal agencies: “In order to clean our air, reduce auto congestion, and improve quality of life, several federal agencies including the EPA, HUD and the Federal Transit Administration are encouraging Transit Oriented Development. The idea behind this type of development is to bring residents closer to train stations, so that they can use mass transportation, and so that downtown revitalization can occur. At the same time, the proposed train horn rule in effect is discouraging the development community and our residents from locating around transit.

“A great example of how this inconsistency in policy plays out is in the Village of Arlington Heights, Illinois. In the last several years, this village directly to the east of my community has invested over $30 million of its own money to spur transit-oriented development in its downtown. 330 higher density residential units are currently under construction, and an additional 300 are planned. 45 new businesses have moved into the downtown development to support the new residential community.

“Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder tells me she has spoken to residents who have purchased condominiums next to the train station who tell her they do not want to stay if faced with train horns around the clock. And they will hear them around the clock. Both freight and commuter trains run through her village and mine an average of seventy times daily. Developments such as this should be encouraged, not squelched by conflicting federal policies.”