Via Systemic Failure, I’ve learned that the federal government is implementing regulatory reform, including some cosmetic changes to railroad regulations; for details, go to this file and see pages 30-41, 54-61, 105-106, 108-109, 112-113, and 115-127.
Drunk Engineer already rightly excoriates the FRA for sticking to its static buff strength regulations even in the face of positive train control, but the full quote given by the FRA to the SRC, which raised the issue, showcases Kafkaesque malevolence. On pages 39-40, the FRA says:
FRA’s regulatory approach to passenger equipment safety is balanced and does incorporate both crash avoidance and crashworthiness measures. FRA necessarily considers the safety of the rail system as a whole, beginning with ways first to avoid an accident, such as through adherence to standards for railroad signal and operating systems (to avoid a collision) and railroad track (to avoid a derailment). Yet, FRA is indeed concerned about mitigating the consequences of an accident, should one occur, and crashworthiness features are an essential complement to crash avoidance measures in providing for the overall safety of the rail system.
FRA has tailored the application of its crashworthiness standards. See 49 CFR 238 Subpart C, and § 229.141. SRC itself notes that, as a tourist railroad, it is exempt from the crashworthiness standards. Similarly, FRA has established a policy to issue waivers under appropriate circumstances to help limit the impact of these standards on light rail equipment that shares use of trackage or rights-of-way with conventional rail equipment (see appendix A to 49 CFR part 211). FRA has also continued to explore means of making its standards more performance-based. FRA has developed guidelines through the RSAC process for waiver approval to use alternative, performance-based crashworthiness standards for passenger equipment operating at speeds up to 125 mph. FRA is pursuing a similar approach through the RSAC process to develop standards for passenger rail equipment operating at speeds up to 220 mph.
FRA’s intent has been to develop a set of standards in the alternative to FRA’s structural and occupant protection requirements for railroad passenger equipment operating at speeds up to 125 mph that would provide the same level of safety and yet be more performance based and more technology and design neutral. Consequently, FRA does anticipate that the alternative standards will provide a benefit to the industry to the extent regulated entities take advantage of the additional flexibility.
Observe that, after saying its regulations are important for the safety of the entire system, the FRA basically admits they’re bad for modern passenger rail, and proposes that railroads that want to do better seek waivers. At this stage, I doubt even the FRA believes that its trains are safer for occupants in crashes with freight trains than UIC-compliant EMUs with crumple zones. The FRA is simply justifying its own existence here, giving itself more jurisdiction than it really needs. Demanding that railroads paint an F on the front end of every locomotive (p. 40-41) is a joke; making agencies jump through hoops to obtain trains that don’t telescope in crashes is a danger to public safety.
If the FRA truly believed its rules were necessary for freight compatibility – or if it were simply captive to freight interests – it would promulgate a streamlined process by which passenger-primary lines can switch to UIC or Japanese rules. New operations could convert lines to those rules by consent of the host freight railroad; it would be a bonanza for the freight rail industry and a ripoff for passenger rail, but it would only impose costs on the public that the public could pay. It would not require a new waiver application from each operator, which costs more than what smaller operators can pay.
Note also that Amtrak, far from following the FRA’s request for waiver applications, only asked for one major change: it asked for performance-based track inspection regimes (p. 124), rather than ones based only on top speed as determined by track class. The FRA brushed it off, saying that maintenance requirements and derailment risk depend on speed. An agency that really thinks this, and doesn’t think axle load or center of gravity matters, should not be in charge of developing alternative standards.
The FRA is beyond hope. Its direct boss, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, should submit a list of about 10-20 existing regional and high-speed trains, from both Europe and Japan, and tell the FRA that it has until the end of the year to write rules under which all listed trains can run on US tracks unmodified except for such modular changes as loading gauge, or else it’ll be dissolved. Freight rail could regulate itself; the AAR won’t do a worse job than the FRA is currently doing. Passenger rail should just pick either the UIC or Japan and follow its rules consistently. Without this gun to the FRA’s proverbial head, nothing will change. It needs revolution, not gradual reform.