Amtrak’s Role in Regulatory Reform

In my previous post, I focused on the FRA’s self-justifying bureaucratic approach to regulation. However, the other main institute of intercity rail in America, Amtrak, too doesn’t come out of the comments looking very well. Unlike the FRA, Amtrak is not actively malevolent, and on the narrow issues it raised, it’s in the right. However, its choice of what to comment on betrays a warped sense of priorities.

On pages 35-36 of the document detailing the comments to transportation regulatory changes and the agency responses, Amtrak effectively asks the FRA to permit it to operate trains at up to 160 mph, rather than 150 mph as is the limit today. Says Amtrak,

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) states that regulations governing high-speed track are duplicative and overlapping.  Amtrak notes that one set of regulations for track Class 8 governs speeds from 125 mph up to 160 mph, and yet another provision in this section states that operations at speeds above 150 mph are currently authorized by FRA only in conjunction with a rule of particular applicability (RPA) that addresses the overall safety of the operation as a system.  Amtrak believes that the speed threshold for an RPA should be 160 mph, to be consistent with the class track speeds.

This is a sensible request, within the boundaries set by accepting the rule of particular applicability in principle. The FRA is wrong to brush it off. However, Amtrak’s decision to make this its stand about speed while neglecting to ask for a waiver from the static buff strength rule shows it’s more interested in pizzazz than in performance.

Amtrak trumpets its 24-mile catenary upgrade, permitting trains to plow the tracks between New Brunswick and Trenton at 160 mph, up from 135 mph today. The time saving from this move is 1:40 minutes, minus a few seconds for acceleration; the time saving from going at 160 mph rather than 150 as the FRA currently permits is 36 seconds, again minus a few seconds for acceleration. The sole purpose of this is to let Amtrak brag about top speed, as it already does. The literally hours that could be saved by higher cant deficiency and higher acceleration are not on Amtrak’s radar, for they do not by themselves let Amtrak write press releases about its top speed.

Although the FRA is unwilling to repeal its regulations preventing unmodified European or Japanese trains from running on US track, it also practically begged agencies to request waivers. The process is sure to be onerous and frankly masochistic, but if Amtrak is willing to make a comment to try to cut the Acela’s travel time by 36 seconds, it ought to be willing to go through the motions of submitting a waiver request to cut it by 2 hours.


  1. Lawrence Velázquez

    Could you possibly provide a little more detail about how you arrive at the “two hours” figure?

    • Alon Levy

      Yes. If you assume good rolling stock – i.e. the hypothetical N700-I I used in my timetable assumptions for Boston-Providence – and then see how long it’d take it to travel on existing track, you get a travel time of about 2 hours less. For example, Boston-Providence would be, including schedule padding, 20.5 minutes at a top speed of 300 km/h, or about 22.5 at a top speed of 240 km/h, vs. 46 minutes today. The issue is that a lot of NEC segments are slow more because of organizational problems, low superelevation and cant deficiency, or low acceleration, rather than tight curves. On top of it, the Acela trains are unreliable and this is one of the factors requiring much more schedule padding than is normal even on shared tracks on railroads that have more schedule discipline.

      • ant6n

        But to get tot that speed everywhere, even without adjusting the ROW, one would still have to update the catenary, tracks and switches, no?

        • Alon Levy

          The catenary north of New Haven doesn’t impose a speed limit. The switches do, but there’s path for express trains from Providence to Boston without turnouts in the diverging direction. The tracks I’m less sure about, but Amtrak is already doing trackwork, and this part isn’t very expensive.

          The main problem for Amtrak from Providence to Boston is extreme schedule padding, coming from its unreliable scheduling, rolling stock, and dispatching. In the opposite direction, the fastest Acela takes not 46 minutes but 34, and if I remember correctly from conductors’ announcements, when a northbound Regional is really late, it does Providence-Boston in 30 or at most 35 minutes. And the Regional has anemic acceleration and long dwell times even with level boarding; taking care of just those is worth about 2 minutes per stop, or maybe a little less in very low-speed territory (e.g. Back Bay).

  2. Stephen Smith

    …it also practically begged agencies to request waivers.

    This is definitely going to be something I’m going to ask them when I do the interview – do they intend on doing a regulatory overhaul, or will any reform be bit-by-bit and based on waiver precedents? And if so, is that really the most efficient way of making policy?

  3. jim

    I’m surprised that CHSRA didn’t comment. They will have to confront the issue of 350km/h capable trainsets sharing a “blended system” with FRA-compliant trains earlier than Amtrak will.

    • anonymouse

      CHSRA’s plan seems to be to either try to build their own entirely segregated system, or else just ignore the FRA regulations and hope they go away. I bet they’re secretly hoping Caltrain will die and thus greatly simplify the design for the Peninsula section: two tracks for HSR, two for BART, and none of it subject to FRA regulation.

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