My posts about the FRA and American railroad incompetence are getting a lot of traction nowadays, thanks to links from Aaron Renn and Stephen Smith, of which the latter has been relinked by Matt Yglesias. The comments to those posts have often brought up the question of why I believe that come 2015, the buff strength requirement will be gone. They also sometimes propose that FRA regulations are useful in the unique circumstances of American railroads. Let me address both concerns right now.
In 2009, Amtrak published its first document proposing higher-speed trains in the Northeast. In this document Amtrak states that,
Subsequent analysis by Amtrak suggests achieving 2 hour and 15 minute service between New York and Washington in the long-term by 2030 will require modifications to existing equipment, or deployment of next generation rolling stock, to allow required speeds through curves, as well as expansion of capacity into and through Manhattan, NY. Table 2 includes estimates of costs required to replace Amtrak’s existing NEC fleet with next generation equipment. As discussed above, this next generation of equipment has the potential to be lighter, and thus faster, than the current generation. However, performance specifications for such equipment will need to be developed and will depend in part on emerging standards for positive train control (PTC) and crash avoidance systems.
My reading of this is that the Amtrak believes the FRA will indeed waive buff strength requirements once PTC comes online; this is buttressed by the fact that Caltrain got a waiver, based in part on a requirement that it install PTC first. The PTC discussed doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere good – note the discussion of developing performance specifications rather than using the emerging worldwide standard that is ERTMS – but it does indicate that Amtrak’s new premium-cost locomotives could be much lighter.
As an aside, this document is what first clued me in to Amtrak’s incompetence. For example, immediately below the paragraph quoted above, Amtrak proposes to raise cant deficiency (“underbalance”) on Metro-North territory from 3″ to 5″; the Acela trainsets can do 7″, and Pendolino trainsets close to 11″. Based on this rather low standard, Amtrak claims “an additional five minutes of trip time reductions are potentially available with the deployment of modified or new equipment.” (Try half an hour.)
As for the second concern, usually the arguments in favor of FRA regulations hinge upon exaggerated claims that the US railroad system is unique. One commenter claims that railroaders call cab cars coffin cars because of the possibility of grade crossing accidents. In reality, lightweight trains safely cross roads at-grade abroad, to say nothing of light rail networks in the US.
There are still plenty of old-time railroaders who believe that in crashes, FRA compliance offers extra protection. It does not. Please read Caltrain’s structural report and compliance assessment for the FRA waiver, which include a technical explanation of the mechanisms for accident survivability used in Europe. Caltrain’s simulations show that high buff strength is only relevant at relative speeds between 15 and 25 mph, and that European EMUs and compliant cars are equally safe in grade crossing accidents. The FRA seems convinced of the safety of European EMUs; it is reportedly harassing Japanese manufacturers about compliance with European survivability regulations (for example, in collisions with a 6-kg steel ball) rather than American ones. Finally, high weight is a liability as much as it is an asset: at Chatsworth, the loss of life came from the fact that the first passenger car telescoped into the heavy locomotive.
Update: the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility, an organization supporting Amtrak’s NEC Master Plan, published an article claiming Amtrak made the right choice to buy the aforementioned locomotives, claiming that Amtrak is underfunded. Recall that the Master Plan is the document that came out of the report referenced above, complete with the same laconic assumptions on train performance, as well as false claims about capacity constraints. The Business Alliance’s article’s greatest sin is the claim at the end that,
Smith also ignores the question of funding when he suggests that Amtrak should purchase Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) for the NEC. Unlike locomotives and non-motorized passenger cars, currently in use on the NEC, EMUs have smaller engines on each passenger car. The debate between investing in EMUs vs. locomotives + cars is beyond the scope of this post. Still, what’s clear is that EMUs would need a significantly higher up-front investment and require an even larger amount of government support, which is highly unlikely at this time.
In reality, a new unpowered Amtrak coach costs $2.2 million, about the same as a decent FRA-compliant EMU on the LIRR and Metro-North. And the three European EMU orders in Railway Gazette’s April 2011 compilation cost between $1.3 and $2 million per car.