Followup on the FRA and Amtrak

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.


  1. Katja

    The fact that all over Europe operators are switching to EMUs should be an indication that there is some merit there. This is especially true for regional trains, but even for intercity trains e.g. Deutsche Bahn recently decided to move from Loco+carriages to EMUs.

    The ICx is also flexible enough to allow configurations from 5 to 14 cars in length, debunking the often-cited myth that with EMUs you can’t react to changing demands. (Page 4)

  2. Tom West

    Links to Caltrains reports produces thefollowinfg message “You are accessing using an old bookmark. We plan to stop supporting old bookmarks in near future. If this information is important to you, please update your bookmark. You will be redirected to the new location in 10seconds.”

  3. ant6n

    That there last paragraph seems to be a copy of the quote.

    It seems to me that in many cases EMUs should actually be cheaper than loco+cars over time – with faster acceleration you get lower round trip times and thus need fewer of these.

  4. anonymouse

    One problem that I’ve heard mentioned repeatedly is that EMUs, though I’m not sure how much of a problem this really is, is that EMUs are regulated as locomotives and thus need to go through the inspection process for locomotives every 92 days. The other downside to EMUs is that they can’t be used for through trains to points outside of electric territory. In the NEC case, this is mostly about the trains to Richmond and Lynchburg, as well as the Vermonter, though I suppose those can stay as loco-hauled and continue to use the dwindling fleet of older electric locomotives. Amtrak could also consider leasing some of their old locomotives to railroads that have enough money for electrification, but not for a new all-electric fleet, such as, for example, Caltrain.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t know about the inspection process. It’s important for maintenance costs, but I plead complete ignorance on the subject. All I’ll note is that the LIRR and Metro-North are doing okay with their EMUs (which does not mean they couldn’t do much better); those EMUs are much heavier than their non-compliant counterparts, but their mean distance between failures is good.

      The other downside you mention is real, but there are ways to mitigate it. For one, Amtrak could stick a diesel locomotive in front of the train, as SNCF did to provide through-service on the TGV to a town to which the rail link was unelectrified; it’s not much more complex than the existing engine change moves. In Vermont, Amtrak and the state both plan on removing through-service in favor of a connection to DMUs anyway. More irreverently, the cost of extending electrification is about $2-3 million per kilometer of route, so if Amtrak chose to buy EMUs instead of unpowered cars (remember, the price is the same) and ask for the same amount of money for electrification instead, it could electrify about 150-250 km, which is at worst enough to electrify to Richmond and at best enough to electrify to both Richmond and Springfield.

      • Paulus Magnus

        There is an additional advantage to the EMUs that I don’t know if you mentioned and that is that it frees up Amfleet cars for use elsewhere, dealing with some or all of the capacity constraints they have dot complained of.

      • david vartanoff

        Indeed FRA regulated EMUs are treated as locomotives. This includes the obviously “rapid transit” cars of PATH due to FRA oversight even though PATH is not a part of the “national railroad network”. The FRA specs include more frequent inspections and some additional hand grabs.

        As to the racism theme, I would note that many early post WWII Japanese products were produced to be low priced. Later production was aimed at a different market segment. In my own trade (electrician) Chinese produced components vary widely in quality.

      • anonymouse

        The inspections are definitely a requirement, but I don’t know how much they really increase operating costs and how much of it is just an excuse made by railroads that don’t like MUs (like NJT), though I should note that MNR and LIRR use third rail power, and nobody really makes third rail electric locomotives, only diesel-electrics (though the Class 92 from the UK might work).

        In terms of through service, DMUs for the Vermont section of the Vermonter would make sense, and in general, the standard NEC 8-car train seems like overkill for most destinations outside it, except maybe Richmond, which should be pretty high on Amtrak’s electrification priority list.

  5. dejv

    WRT Chatsworth – Czech Railway IM started to install a workaround that stops remotely all nearby trains if some signal is crossed on red – the supplier (who got a foothold in USA recently by level crossing installation near Nashville, TN) claims that such device could prevent all past accidents caused by crossing stop signals. The device seems to be a good solution where true PTC won’t be for a long time but communication infrastructure that allows remote emergency stop is in place – which I beliveve is case of US freight railroads.

    WRT ERTMS – it’s implementation also isn’t risk-free – slow pace of its adoption in Europe proves it. However, there are already analyses and reports of what went wrong and what new installs should avoid.

  6. Nikko P

    Alon, have you considered trying to get your opinions on FRA reform circulating in more mainstream circles to help get the ball rolling?

    • Steve

      Seconded. Perhaps an advantage would lay in setting up a gazette-type site–like the New Urban Network–that would automatically cross-post whenever a transit blog (e.g. this site, The Overhead Wire, The Transport Politic, Reason and Rail, etc.) updates?

      W/r/t ERTMS–the fact that such a wealth of technical analysis exists to support the system would make the system significantly cheaper and easier to install over trying to develop a lookalike from scratch.

  7. jim

    I think you’re misreading the passage from the Northeast Corridor Assessment. I don’t think that Amtrak believes FRA will sua sponte abandon the buff strength reg once PTC is universally installed (and I wouldn’t bet on that being in 2015, either). Rather, Amtrak thinks (or the people in Amtrak who wrote that report then thought) that FRA confronted with preventing Amtrak running 300-320 km/h capable trainsets on the NEC or abandoning the buff strength reg (for those trainsets in that environment, and only for them) would choose to let Amtrak run them, given Amtrak’s commitment to PTC on the NEC.

    That doesn’t mean that FRA confronted with forcing Amtrak to pay maybe $100M more for locomotives or abandoning the buff strength reg wouldn’t respond, “spend the damn money.”

    • Stephen Smith

      Regardless of whether the FRA is actually willing to work with Amtrak to allow something close to UIC locos or EMUs, it appears that nobody at Amtrak has ever even asked. And if they have, they’ve certainly never made a big stink about it. This itself is a failing.

      And to be honest, I think that if Amtrak made a fuss and got a few other big FRA-hobbled RRs (LIRR, MNRR, NJT, SEPTA, Metra, etc.) to do the same, someone might notice and there might be a chance that someone would actually do something about it, at least on the NEC.

      • jim

        Two bureaucratic maxims probably apply:

        1. Pick your fights.
        2. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

  8. Pingback: EMUs Versus Locomotives | Pedestrian Observations

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