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(Cross Posted at The Makeshift Academic)

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, which are considerably ahead of their U.S counterparts technologically, to run on U.S. tracks.  (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 train route, like Michigan's Amtrak services.

Worse yet, the heavier trains consumer 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 degrade 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 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 a great 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, which should ease training costs, and lower maintenance from 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 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.

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

Originally posted to Fake Irishman on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 05:47 PM PDT.

Also republished by Sunday Train and Community Spotlight.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Ordering more lightweight equipment (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    without spending the money necessary to upgrade "collison avoidance" doesn't sound like a good idea.

    Let's hope there's a solid plan to make those investments before putting thin, flimsy passenger stock on the lines.

    If cutting Social Security & Medicare benefits for low income seniors is what Democrats do after they win a budget standoff, I'd hate to see what they do after they lose one.

    by Betty Pinson on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 06:56:23 PM PDT

    •  Correction "rolling stock" n/t (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      If cutting Social Security & Medicare benefits for low income seniors is what Democrats do after they win a budget standoff, I'd hate to see what they do after they lose one.

      by Betty Pinson on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 06:56:48 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's been acknowledged in the regulations. (9+ / 0-)

        The adoption of Positive Train Control here is running late, no question, but blanket approval for new equipment completely depends on having the PTC installed.

        In other words, no PTC, no lightweight equipment. However, there are already exceptions allowed (with no PTC): The Talgo trains that Amtrak operates in Washington and Oregon have safety exemptions as well as strengthened designs for operating here. They are fast and enjoyable trains to ride, and since their introduction ridership has increased a huge amount. Something like about 10 times the numbers previously, but then there were no trains at all running a schedule like they do.

        There are some German-made Diesel railcars shuttling commuters in the San Diego area that are also exempt. There are no freight trains during the daytime, so they are the only trains running. Any freight trains that need to service the area run after the system shuts down at night, thus no collisions are possible.

        And yeah, I know tarantulas don't really act like that at all, so no snarking, this is the internet damnit!

        by itzadryheat on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 07:18:54 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  If it's "running late" then the rest should wait (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          as well.

          It would be criminally irresponsible to subject passengers to that level of danger in public transportation.   We treat freight better than that.

          If cutting Social Security & Medicare benefits for low income seniors is what Democrats do after they win a budget standoff, I'd hate to see what they do after they lose one.

          by Betty Pinson on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 08:00:48 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Comparative risk (10+ / 0-)

            If we push someone to drive a car instead of taking a train, that person's risk of injury or death goes up. Anything that makes transit more expensive moves more people to cars.

            But we accept the risks of auto travel, at least partly because everyone thinks that their driving skills reduce their personal risks so the overall statistics do not apply to them.

            The lighter weight vehicles are not "flimsy" just because they do not survive a high-speed head-on collision with a freight train. PTC is a great idea, but is being required even in places that have very low risks.

            This is similar to air safety measures. There are people who used to fly between NYC and DC who now drive, because the TSA process has made the times comparable. Driving is much more dangerous, and so lowering the already minute risk of flying has increased real risk, and probably, if someone would go measure, actually killed more people.

            We should set safety rules with comparative risks in mind. Making the safer alternative more safe and also less likely to be used is not increasing overall safety.

            This is a common American fallacy, reducing small but news-generating risks while ignoring common, therefore not well reported risks,

            "When strong winds blow, don't build walls, but rather windmills: there is a way to turn every bit of adversity into fuel for improvement." -Nassim Nicholas Taleb

            by Urban Owl on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 08:53:08 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  That's what I was trying to say. (10+ / 0-)

            Currently non-FRA compliant trains are not allowed unless operating conditions isolate them from freight trains, or they are tested and pass the FRA regulations. As far as I know, those conditions do not exist except in the two exceptions I noted previously.

            The Talgo trains were built to US standards but with some permitted exceptions in their overall design. They still passed the FRA testing required of new equipment, but their engineered design on paper was considered sub-standard. Once the tests were passed, they were granted the exception. Their service availability is in the mid-to-high 90's percentiles I believe, which most American equipment in use has a hard time reaching.

            I have ridden the Talgos, and they are perfectly safe, even at 80 mph: they are actually rated for over 120 here in the US. I have also ridden the French, German, and Italian high speed trains, all at well over 100 mph. Safe? Certainly, and comfortable.

            At no point does anyone in the rail industry wish to sacrifice passenger safety. Even what few American rail equipment manufacturers there are left have wanted these changes because they can now design equipment that is competitive anywhere. We have almost no passenger car manufacturers anyway: a static market with very slow growth drove many out of business years ago. Most commuter train cars are made by overseas companies who set up factories here, or by Bombardier in Canada. Adopting these new regulations may bring some new, actual US-owned companies to life, making new products that can be sold far and wide.

            And yeah, I know tarantulas don't really act like that at all, so no snarking, this is the internet damnit!

            by itzadryheat on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 08:54:18 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  And the Talgo's are an example of ... (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Woody, itzadryheat, roadbear, spacecadet1

              ... regulating the safety of the train as opposed to regulating the safety of each individual rail car. Its the individual passenger cars that are non-compliant ... but since they run in sets with a locomotive on one side and a driver trailer on the other, and there's nothing sub-standard in any sense of the safety of the train about the complete train.

              Indeed, given the shorter braking distance due to the lighter weight of the passenger cars, the Talgos on the Cascade Corridor are likely safer than using equivalent "compliant" passenger railcars.

              Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

              by BruceMcF on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 04:33:08 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

          •  It does ... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            roadbear, spacecadet1

            ... the right to use of the lighter equipment on the corridor depends on having the PTC installed on that corridor.

            But if there is PTC on the Chicago to Detroit corridor, it does not make sense to have the use of lighter equipment on that corridor wait until PTC is installed on the St. Louis to Dallas corridor.

            Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

            by BruceMcF on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 04:27:46 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  PTC is already in place on many major routes (9+ / 0-)

      The NEC, which is the major passenger spine is an example.  Michigan and Illinois are getting there, which is why speeds are going up.

      Finally, as the LA Chatsworth disaster showed, the buff strength requirement didn't really protect passengers.

    •  I'd rather be in a Talgo . . . (12+ / 0-)

      Talking of lightweight equipment on US rails, I'd frankly rather be in one of the unibody Talgo trains already operating in the Pacific Northwest than in a good many US trains that meet the FRA's outdated and increasingly less realistic buff strength standard.  

      These European and Asian trains by and large aren't flimsy.  They're simply lightweight.  It's the Volvo principle.  A Volvo wouldn't meet a buff strength standard nearly as well as a Lincoln Town Car were one to be applied to motor vehicles, but it's the safety cage that counts in a unibody, and for that reason I'd be far more confident in the Volvo than the Town Car in a crash.  

      Looking at the big wrecks in recent years at least in England, they're notable for two big things in my view; the remarkable integrity of the heavier duty unibody car designs, the sort under consideration by operators here, and the fact that the only way of preventing fatalities in almost all of them would have been a far greater emphasis by regulators and rail operators on crash avoidance.  It's good to see the FRA at least drawing on this lesson.

    •  That's exactly the type of reasoning ... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Fake Irishman, gustynpip, spacecadet1

      ... the FRA used to use. The fact that the heavier equipment is not necessarily actually safer for the passengers did not enter into the requirement to use the heavier equipment.

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 04:24:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Nice diary, F.I., hits it right on the money. (12+ / 0-)

    With all the High Speed Rail discussions and proposals, there is no question that non-US manufacturers will bid, given that they no longer will have to have completely different designs for their home markets and us.

    A note about the Sprinters: they are made in Sacramento, and consist of a mix of German and US parts. Most of the fabrication of the frame, body, et cetera, is made here, with the electrical and other major components imported. Siemens had to build a brand-new factory, and outsource to US manufacturers as much as they could in order to win the bid for these locomotives.

    These locomotives are based on a very, very successful design that has been sold to many nations in the EU and beyond. A very nice thing is that the locos will be able to operate on all three overhead power voltages present in the Northeast Corridor, thus allowing them to run from Boston to Washington and Harrisburg (and everywhere in between where there is catenary) non-stop.

    They are not HSR actually, but they get us a little closer...

    And yeah, I know tarantulas don't really act like that at all, so no snarking, this is the internet damnit!

    by itzadryheat on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 07:30:14 PM PDT

    •  Agreed. (10+ / 0-)

      I think they're a major upgrade. And the great thing about the Siemens plant in Sacramento (and the Nippon Sharymo plant in Illinois)  is that American workers are beginning to get the specialized skills needed to produce trains again. (I think Michigan Tech  has actually opened up a welding program specifically for rolling stock work.) You might start seeing some American rolling stock manufacturers starting up over the long term -- probably not complete trains, but maybe for parts and such.

      •  It also puts Siemens in a good spot. (8+ / 0-)

        I'll bet they bid on the Cal HSR system, and having a plant in Sacramento fits the bill very nicely. I've ridden their Velaro trainsets in Germany, and they were very impressive to say the least. One journey was on older track, and we were still doing 140 mph! They are capable of 186 on the specially built HSR tracks, which is nearly flying, albeit at very low altitude!

        It's almost too bad that Siemens and EMD didn't partner up for the Amtrak locos. It would be nice to see either EMD or GE start making electrics again. Of course, it would be nice to see electrification as something other than a concept outside the Northeast Corridor, and I think the Cal HSR is the ticket to start that movement.

        And yeah, I know tarantulas don't really act like that at all, so no snarking, this is the internet damnit!

        by itzadryheat on Fri Nov 01, 2013 at 09:05:12 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Used To (5+ / 0-)

    I used to take Amtrak, but I had to move, and it doesn't go where I need.

    Yes, you're right, we should go the way that the smart systems all have. The sooner the better.

  •  Glad this got rescued because I didn't see it. (6+ / 0-)

    It's that "thing" about Daily Kos and rec lists and volume traffic. It's what we got, but that makes rescue rangers all the more important. So when I see a diary like this one up here for a couple days I know something is working the way ti should.

    We have made some foolish and shortsighted choices as a society here in the US, and abandoning rail was clearly one of them. We wouldn't have had to eschew the automobile and road development to have it, we just should have continued to invest, like one would with seed potatoes or something. Stupid.

    Imagine high speed rail all over? Imagine the economic stimulus that would provide? Almost makes you think there are people who have an interest in suppressing a vibrant economy...

    •  Yeah, Sunday Train got scheduled to be rescued ... (0+ / 0-)

      ... last Sunday, though it did not actually hit Community Spotlight since it hit the Reclist for a brief period of time late Sunday Night and so got bumped from being rescued.

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 04:41:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I love Amtrak (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wytcld, tikkun, Mr Robert, Woody

    I live along the NE corridor and take the train, rather than flying, whenever possible.  This is welcome news!

    "We *can* go back to the Dark Ages! The crust of learning and good manners and tolerance is so thin!" -- Sinclair Lewis

    by Nespolo on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 04:23:11 AM PDT

  •  Wasn't PTC resisted by.... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    unfangus, Woody

       ...the rail carriers? Just like automatic couplers and air brakes were?

    Compost for a greener piles?

    by Hoghead99 on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 06:57:46 AM PDT

    •  Probably (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Mr Robert, gustynpip, spacecadet1

      Cost issues. It's also been a sticking point in negotiating track rights for Amtrak. When Amtrak wants to raise speeds, the host railroad will say something like "OK then, you're paying for PTC and track improvements and the bill will be [something outrageous]."

      Solution: in some cases, just have Amtrak or the state agency buy the darn rail line like it's done for most of the NE Corridor and now the Michigan line (if you can get the money to do so).

      In other cases, the freight rail companies will negotiate in good faith (see the Illinois, Cascades and NC lines for examples).

      •  Really? (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        gustynpip, spacecadet1

        When there were murmurs about dedicated passenger rails, the freight companies raised a huge stink about suing someone for loss of rent.  I don't remember whether they were threatening a government agency or Amtrak (or both) but it struck me as a nasty implication about the control the freight companies have over reliable passenger service.  I have longed for reliable service between the east coast and Ohio.  Whenever I've used the Lake Shore east west corridor, I've been horrified at just how absurdly unreliable they are and how infrequently they run (once a day).

        Newt 2012. Sociopath, adulterer, hypocrite, Republican.

        by tikkun on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 03:05:08 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Not only has the current PTC law been ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ... resisted ...

      ... the original effort to require PTC on all corridors with speeds of 80mph or more, many decades ago, was originally resisted by pretty much every railroad other than the Florida Atlantic Coast line and the Penn by simply putting their corridor speed limits down to 79mph.

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 06:43:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Socialism! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    We need more of it.

    "Reagan's dead, and he was a lousy president" -- Keith Olbermann 4/22/09

    by kovie on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 06:11:05 PM PDT

  •  FWIW, PTC is a $15 Billion investment (0+ / 0-)

    It's not simple.There is a large infrastructure that has to be installed, tens of thousands of radios need to be built and installed. Electronic controls have to be installed in 20-30,000 locomotives.  Lots of software needs to be written and tested.  The roads just started taking deliveries of the radios about a year ago.

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 07:46:15 PM PDT

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