Stephen Smith interviewed the FRA last month asking questions about its regulations and the waiver process. The initial round of responses is included below, unmodified except very minor formatting, followed by my own commentary; there was also followup, which I’ll provide on request, but the responses generated were uninteresting. The three PDF files attached by the FRA in its email to Stephen are also included.
FRA’s role in regulating passenger rail safety
Ensuring the safety of America’s railways is job one. FRA has jurisdiction over passenger operations of rails including current and planned high-speed intercity passenger rail service. FRA enforces specific regulations governing passenger equipment crashworthiness, emergency systems, and emergency preparedness. FRA does not exercise jurisdiction over insular rail systems (i.e. subway, light rail, narrow gauge, etc.). Visit http://www.gpoaccess.gov/cfr/index.html for more information.
FRA’s approach to safety regulation
The U.S. approach to safety regulation uses crashworthiness principles and standards. Rail rolling stock in the U.S. is generally larger in terms of size, weight, and mass. There are no freight trains (with the length of 125 cars) operating in Europe, nor 286,000lbs freight cars. In contrast to the European rail network, traffic on the U.S. rail system is dominated by privately-owned freight railroads. The mix of freight and passenger train traffic creates a complex operating environment, which pose distinct hazards. In the U.S., intercity and commuter trains commonly share the same tracks with freight trains weighing 15,000 tons or more, requiring morestringent safety regulations instituted by FRA.
There are more than 250,000 highway-rail grade crossings in the United States, and commercial trucks are much heavier than typical European trucks (with freight tonnage substantially higher), so the risk of a crossing collision involving large commercial vehicles and passenger trains, is greater in the U. S. As a result, FRA has actively sought to establish robust passenger rail equipment safety standards to mitigate the hazards that exist.
FRA and International Peer Review/Best Practices
FRA has studied the design and operation of European and Asian passenger rail systems, and other nations have – for decades – looked to the FRA for guidance and expertise in designing robust safety assurance systems. Rigorous testing and applied research have helped in the development of standards for U.S. passenger rail service.
Passenger rail regulatory initiatives
There are several initiatives underway regarding alternatively-designed passenger equipment. The key is use of alternative performance standards which may allow foreign designs to meet U.S. crashworthiness standards. FRA expects these requirements will be formally incorporated into future regulations. The work of the Engineering Task Force (ETF), which was created before RSIA, is an outgrowth of FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC)—a group comprised of rail industry stakeholders – is developing Tier III (latest generation) passenger equipment safety standards. FRA has a comprehensive system safety approach to ensure that infrastructure, equipment, and operations are rigorously designed, engineered and tested. In the passenger rail arena, this means attention is paid both to accident avoidance, and accident mitigation (i.e. occupant survivability).
Rail equipment procurement costs
With the infusion of unprecedented federal investment thanks to the Obama Administration, a renewed market for passenger rail equipment is emerging, and the stringent Buy American requirements set forth by the Administration’s high-speed intercity passenger rail program will provide a much-needed boost to U.S. manufacturing. The Sec. 305 Next Generation Corridor Equipment Committee (comprised of the states, FRA and the rail industry) is working to develop equipment standards that balance the necessity of ensuring safety, while taking into consideration the costs and prospective benefits of regulation, as required by law.
Current guidelines are intended to allow alternatively-designed rolling stock that meets UIC standards, to be modified for use in the U.S. See the attached draft report of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee, Technical Criteria and Procedures for Evaluating the Crashworthiness and Occupant Protection Performance of Alternatively-Designed Passenger Rail Equipment for Use in Tier 1 Service.
There are several operators seeking waivers to use lighter passenger equipment. FRA intends to revise existing regulations to incorporate a process that ensures operators seeking to utilize non-compliant equipment, can obtain approval to do so under the existing waiver process, while maintaining the level of safety.
The section about the FRA’s approach to safety regulation is full of false claims. Let’s start from the easiest: it is completely false that American trucks are heavier than European trucks. It may be true on average, but the maximum gross weight of an American truck is 40 short tons, or 36 metric tons; individual states may impose higher limits, going up to about 60 metric tons, but the Interstate system and other national roads are designed to the federal limit. In contrast, the EU limit is 40 metric tons, and some EU member states have waivers and have higher limits, including Britain (44) and Sweden (60). Japan’s limit is 36 tons. I do not know what the gross load limit is at individual level crossings, but assuming it is not different from the national limit, in both Sweden and Japan there are many crossings carrying EMUs that are lighter than the heaviest permitted trucks. While Europe has less truck traffic than the US per capita (see e.g. ton-km numbers here), the difference isn’t so large that it justifies an entirely different policy.
Unsurprisingly, lighter weight is not a problem at level crossings: Caltrain’s waiver study, which the FRA is familiar with because it granted the waiver, found that UIC-compliant trains are at least as safe as FRA-compliant trains in grade crossing accidents.
The claim about freight train weight in the US and Europe is true in broad outline, but misleading. First, Australia has the same freight train length and weight as the US, but has British-style regional passenger trains, i.e. narrow and light. Second, from the point of view of a 500-ton passenger train, it does not matter whether it hits a 4,000-ton Swiss intermodal train or a 15,000-ton American coal train; both are like hitting a solid wall. For deformability purposes, the weight of a single car or locomotive matters more.
Although the weight of a single freight car is higher in the US than in Europe and Japan, the difference between American cars and some locomotives running in Europe and Japan is small. American locos weigh about 130 metric tons, and the heaviest cars are 155 short tons, or 141 metric. The RENFE Class 333 locomotive weighs 120 metric tons, and the Vossloh Euro locomotive has versions weighing 123 metric tons running in Spain and Sweden. Most European locomotives are lighter, but the UIC system is fully capable of dealing with heavier locos, with better safety than in the US. Japanese freight locos can be even heavier, up to 134 tons for JR Freight’s Class EH500, and passenger service in Japan is far safer than in Europe, to say nothing of the US.
Missing from the FRA’s safety regime entirely is any mention of stopping distances or derailment protection. With positive train control, the only collision risk comes from a derailed train, and derailments are common enough that freight railroads demand some track separation from passenger tracks, to reduce liability. FRA buff strength is nearly worthless in such a scenario: according to the Caltrain waiver report again or page 15 of the waiver request PDF, Tier I strength offers protection up to a relative speed of about 40 km/h; since Tier I is applicable up to an average speed of 200 km/h, we obtain that Tier I strength cuts 4% from the stopping distance. The practice in other countries with mixed legacy track is to limit the stopping distance instead – for example, Germany had to develop an entirely new signaling system to allow stopping distances longer than a kilometer.
The other sections basically say “Trust us, we know what we are doing, and at any rate we will do better in the future.” Sometimes, the FRA is even contradicting earlier statements it made, for example that its regulations do not increase passenger train weight; however, the biggest zinger, the claim about truck weight in the US vs. in other developed countries, is a consistent line.
Whether the FRA’s upcoming Tier III regulations will actually be an improvement remains to be seen, but is doubtful. The documents supplied by the FRA are ambiguous as to whether the FRA will even permit high-speed EMUs, a configuration used since the Shinkansen in the 1960s. The FRA says on page 23 of the first PDF it attached:
FRA realizes that some of the more modern HSR train sets used overseas eliminate the conventional power car and use an electrical multiple‐unit configuration that includes passenger seating in the cab car. However, there are no simple answers to the question of whether passenger seating in cab cars is appropriate. The answer will require careful research and full consideration of the operating environment where the trainset operates. Protection for the operator and passengers will remain a key factor.
Readers with some knowledge of HSR history will know that the Shinkansen has had no passenger fatalities. But in fact more is true: the ICE has only had one fatal accident and that came from the bridge falling on a derailed train, killing people in car three and behind while sparing the first two cars; the Pendolino EMUs running at 200-250 km/h all over Europe have not had passenger fatalities; and the recent Wenzhou accident involved one train falling from the bridge, killing people in multiple cars. Finally, at Zoufftgen the passenger train was an EMU, and the low fatality count (6 including the crew of the freight train) was attributed to the presence of crumple zones and a survivable space.
This is stonewalling at its finest: insist that the people in charge know what they’re doing and handwave all concerns by appealing to special circumstances, which are usually not all that special. As we’ve seen before with the FRA’s self-justifying approach to waivers, the agency exists mainly in order to keep existing. Finer examples of Decide-Announce-Defend exist in environmental policy, but this is a very good one in transportation policy.