FRA Stonewalling

Stephen Smith interviewed the FRA last month asking questions about its regulations and the waiver process. The initial round of responses is included below, unmodified except very minor formatting, followed by my own commentary; there was also followup, which I’ll provide on request, but the responses generated were uninteresting. The three PDF files attached by the FRA in its email to Stephen are also included.

FRA’s role in regulating passenger rail safety

Ensuring the safety of America’s railways is job one.  FRA has jurisdiction over passenger operations of rails including current and planned high-speed intercity passenger rail service.  FRA enforces specific regulations governing passenger equipment crashworthiness, emergency systems, and emergency preparedness.  FRA does not exercise jurisdiction over insular rail systems (i.e. subway, light rail, narrow gauge, etc.). Visit for more information.

FRA’s approach to safety regulation
The U.S. approach to safety regulation uses crashworthiness principles and standards.  Rail rolling stock in the U.S. is generally larger in terms of size, weight, and mass.  There are no freight trains (with the length of 125 cars) operating in Europe, nor 286,000lbs freight cars.  In contrast to the European rail network, traffic on the U.S. rail system is dominated by privately-owned freight railroads.  The mix of freight and passenger train traffic creates a complex operating environment, which pose distinct hazards.  In the U.S., intercity and commuter trains commonly share the same tracks with freight trains weighing 15,000 tons or more, requiring morestringent safety regulations instituted by FRA.

There are more than 250,000 highway-rail grade crossings in the United States, and commercial trucks are much heavier than typical European trucks (with freight tonnage substantially higher), so the risk of a crossing collision involving large commercial vehicles and passenger trains, is greater in the U. S.  As a result, FRA has actively sought to establish robust passenger rail equipment safety standards to mitigate the hazards that exist.

FRA and International Peer Review/Best Practices
FRA has studied the design and operation of European and Asian passenger rail systems, and other nations have – for decades – looked to the FRA for guidance and expertise in designing robust safety assurance systems.  Rigorous testing and applied research have helped in the development of standards for U.S. passenger rail service.

Passenger rail regulatory initiatives
There are several initiatives underway regarding alternatively-designed passenger equipment.  The key is use of alternative performance standards which may allow foreign designs to meet U.S. crashworthiness standards.  FRA expects these requirements will be formally incorporated into future regulations.  The work of the Engineering Task Force (ETF), which was created before RSIA, is an outgrowth of FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC)—a group comprised of rail industry stakeholders – is developing Tier III (latest generation) passenger equipment safety standards.  FRA has a comprehensive system safety approach to ensure that infrastructure, equipment, and operations are rigorously designed, engineered and tested.  In the passenger rail arena, this means attention is paid both to accident avoidance, and accident mitigation (i.e. occupant survivability).

Rail equipment procurement costs
With the infusion of unprecedented federal investment thanks to the Obama Administration, a renewed market for passenger rail equipment is emerging, and the stringent Buy American requirements set forth by the Administration’s high-speed intercity passenger rail program will provide a much-needed boost to U.S. manufacturing.  The Sec. 305 Next Generation Corridor Equipment Committee (comprised of the states, FRA and the rail industry) is working to develop equipment standards that balance the necessity of ensuring safety, while taking into consideration the costs and prospective benefits of regulation, as required by law.

Standards harmonization
Current guidelines are intended to allow alternatively-designed rolling stock that meets UIC standards, to be modified for use in the U.S.  See the attached draft report of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee, Technical Criteria and Procedures for Evaluating the Crashworthiness and Occupant Protection Performance of Alternatively-Designed Passenger Rail Equipment for Use in Tier 1 Service.

Waiver requests
There are several operators seeking waivers to use lighter passenger equipment.  FRA intends to revise existing regulations to incorporate a process that ensures operators seeking to utilize non-compliant equipment, can obtain approval to do so under the existing waiver process, while maintaining the level of safety.

The section about the FRA’s approach to safety regulation is full of false claims. Let’s start from the easiest: it is completely false that American trucks are heavier than European trucks. It may be true on average, but the maximum gross weight of an American truck is 40 short tons, or 36 metric tons; individual states may impose higher limits, going up to about 60 metric tons, but the Interstate system and other national roads are designed to the federal limit. In contrast, the EU limit is 40 metric tons, and some EU member states have waivers and have higher limits, including Britain (44) and Sweden (60). Japan’s limit is 36 tons. I do not know what the gross load limit is at individual level crossings, but assuming it is not different from the national limit, in both Sweden and Japan there are many crossings carrying EMUs that are lighter than the heaviest permitted trucks. While Europe has less truck traffic than the US per capita (see e.g. ton-km numbers here), the difference isn’t so large that it justifies an entirely different policy.

Unsurprisingly, lighter weight is not a problem at level crossings: Caltrain’s waiver study, which the FRA is familiar with because it granted the waiver, found that UIC-compliant trains are at least as safe as FRA-compliant trains in grade crossing accidents.

The claim about freight train weight in the US and Europe is true in broad outline, but misleading. First, Australia has the same freight train length and weight as the US, but has British-style regional passenger trains, i.e. narrow and light. Second, from the point of view of a 500-ton passenger train, it does not matter whether it hits a 4,000-ton Swiss intermodal train or a 15,000-ton American coal train; both are like hitting a solid wall. For deformability purposes, the weight of a single car or locomotive matters more.

Although the weight of a single freight car is higher in the US than in Europe and Japan, the difference between American cars and some locomotives running in Europe and Japan is small. American locos weigh about 130 metric tons, and the heaviest cars are 155 short tons, or 141 metric. The RENFE Class 333 locomotive weighs 120 metric tons, and the Vossloh Euro locomotive has versions weighing 123 metric tons running in Spain and Sweden. Most European locomotives are lighter, but the UIC system is fully capable of dealing with heavier locos, with better safety than in the US. Japanese freight locos can be even heavier, up to 134 tons for JR Freight’s Class EH500, and passenger service in Japan is far safer than in Europe, to say nothing of the US.

Missing from the FRA’s safety regime entirely is any mention of stopping distances or derailment protection. With positive train control, the only collision risk comes from a derailed train, and derailments are common enough that freight railroads demand some track separation from passenger tracks, to reduce liability. FRA buff strength is nearly worthless in such a scenario: according to the Caltrain waiver report again or page 15 of the waiver request PDF, Tier I strength offers protection up to a relative speed of about 40 km/h; since Tier I is applicable up to an average speed of 200 km/h, we obtain that Tier I strength cuts 4% from the stopping distance. The practice in other countries with mixed legacy track is to limit the stopping distance instead – for example, Germany had to develop an entirely new signaling system to allow stopping distances longer than a kilometer.

The other sections basically say “Trust us, we know what we are doing, and at any rate we will do better in the future.” Sometimes, the FRA is even contradicting earlier statements it made, for example that its regulations do not increase passenger train weight; however, the biggest zinger, the claim about truck weight in the US vs. in other developed countries, is a consistent line.

Whether the FRA’s upcoming Tier III regulations will actually be an improvement remains to be seen, but is doubtful. The documents supplied by the FRA are ambiguous as to whether the FRA will even permit high-speed EMUs, a configuration used since the Shinkansen in the 1960s. The FRA says on page 23 of the first PDF it attached:

FRA realizes that some of the more modern HSR train sets used overseas eliminate the conventional power car and use an electrical multiple‐unit configuration that includes passenger seating in the cab car. However, there are no simple answers to the question of whether passenger seating in cab cars is appropriate. The answer will require careful research and full consideration of the operating environment where the trainset operates. Protection for the operator and passengers will remain a key factor.

Readers with some knowledge of HSR history will know that the Shinkansen has had no passenger fatalities. But in fact more is true: the ICE has only had one fatal accident and that came from the bridge falling on a derailed train, killing people in car three and behind while sparing the first two cars; the Pendolino EMUs running at 200-250 km/h all over Europe have not had passenger fatalities; and the recent Wenzhou accident involved one train falling from the bridge, killing people in multiple cars. Finally, at Zoufftgen the passenger train was an EMU, and the low fatality count (6 including the crew of the freight train) was attributed to the presence of crumple zones and a survivable space.

This is stonewalling at its finest: insist that the people in charge know what they’re doing and handwave all concerns by appealing to special circumstances, which are usually not all that special. As we’ve seen before with the FRA’s self-justifying approach to waivers, the agency exists mainly in order to keep existing. Finer examples of Decide-Announce-Defend exist in environmental policy, but this is a very good one in transportation policy.


  1. Steve

    So…how do we change it? There are few better examples of completely broken regulation, and this is regulation we cannot afford to have going forward.

    Since the Republicans are more apt to deregulate than anyone else, maybe a campaign on Mica?

    • jim

      This was, I think, one of LaHood’s failures. He didn’t even attempt to grapple with the internal structure of USDOT. FHWA doesn’t talk to FTA (see DC’s 11th St. Bridge debacle). FTA doesn’t talk to FRA. FRA does its thing regardless. FHWA does its thing regardless (see the Tappan Zee Bridge takeover).

      I don’t think this a really a deregulation issue. FRA regulates because it regulates. Just challenging it will simply make it curl up like a hedgehog. Its mission needs to be changed from regulation to promotion: promotion of passenger rail and HSR. Mica is precisely the wrong person to ask to make that happen. The next Transportation Secretary will need to change FRA. Who would be best, I don’t know.

  2. Zmapper

    The best hope for FRA elimination would be if Ron Paul wins the presidency. Completely eliminating a department just seems like something that he would do. I am a bit surprised that he didn’t include it in his Budget Plan. Though, I guess it is not as important in the long run as ending the Empire Building overseas or bringing education back under local control.

    Part of the FRA regulations exist because of blatant protectionism for Bombardier and Kawasaki. Pretty much every passenger vehicle on the rails today in the US was at least partially built by them. The two larger companies can afford to have separate product lines for each countries “super-special unique” demands.

    Here in Colorado, there was a maker of tourist coaches and the like named Colorado Railcar. FRA regulations require everything they sell to US customers to be overweight, expensive, etc. Would they have gone bankrupt if they could sell something that people want on the global marketplace?

    What should be the next steps? Is there a realistic chance of reform today or will the special interests of the freight railroads, Bombardier, and Big Oil block any chance at reform?

    • Alon Levy

      On the contrary, US Railcar, née Colorado Railcar, is one of the main beneficiaries of FRA regulations: it’s the only company currently making FRA-compliant DMUs, and therefore any plans to run DMUs on mainline rail in the US are drawn around the specs of the CRC.

      I don’t know what Bombardier’s role in the regulations is, but I doubt it’s significant. For one, the company’s aggressively marketing the Zefiro, which is noncompliant; the Bombardier ads I saw at Metro-North stations last time I rode Amtrak feature the Zefiro, not the Bilevel Car. In addition, in Canada, where Bombardier’s power is much greater, the FRA-like regulations are much more flexible about granting waivers; cities give Bombardier no-bid contracts for its European regional trains, or for its line of subway trains, so most lobbying there is likely on the local level.

      Stephen tells me that from what he’s heard the freight railroads have no direct role in FRA regulations. They may like the idea of regulations that make passenger rail infeasible, but the FRA does things without their input. That’s how you get rules like the one requiring painting an F on the locomotive’s front end in order to identify a) that it’s the front end and b) that it’s a locomotive.

      Finally, I don’t think Paul can do anything on this matter that Obama can’t. If the President has the power to unilaterally abolish the power of federal agencies, then it can be done regardless of who’s in charge; my guess is that neither Obama nor Paul would care too much on his own, but that both would be receptive to the idea if lobbied appropriately. And if it requires Congressional cooperation, then the person to talk to is Mica, who’s the exact opposite of Paul on these matters.

      • Zmapper

        Quick comment here, watching the debate:

        I think that the freight railroads are willing to sacrifice painting an F on the locomotive if it means that the passenger trains go away. Again, that is just speculation. Though, I haven’t seen the freight railroads make much inroads with FRA reform.

        • Alon Levy

          The point is that the freight railroads complain about stupid regulations (UP said the F rule puzzles it), and the FRA does nothing. So I’m not yet willing to believe in the regulatory capture theory.

      • was carless

        Colorad railcar WAS the only DMU-compliant manufacturer in the US. In 2008, Trimet basically paid for the company (but didn’t sieze its assets) to complete work on the three train cars it had ordered. It has gone out of business.

  3. Zmapper

    The question at the heart of this is still partially unanswered. Why would the FRA and Congress write the regulations in order to favor current US practices? Regulations don’t just come out of thin air; someone is benefiting. Who is that beneficiary? The railroads, rail manufacturers, unions, oil? Someone is telling the bureaucrat at the FRA to write the regulations one way or another.

    Bombardier advertising the Zefiro is interesting. I have been getting pop-ups from them about “The climate is right for trains” and the trains featured appear to be Acelas and Bi-levels. Would you happen to have a link or picture of said advertisement?

    The fact that US Railcar is the only current manufacturer of FRA compliant DMU trainsets is really going to come back and bite RTD (Denver) in the hind. The NW corridor project is set to use DMU trainsets. The size and scope of the order that RTD placed bankrupted Colorado Railcar. Who will they turn to when the line opens in 2019, if ever, to furnish the trains? One can certainly hope that they electrify the NW line, because the other three lines will be electrified, so there only needs to be one type of train.

    Come to think of it, some railroad executives may want the FRA gone. Problem is, they don’t wish to be openly “against safety.” The Airlines are likely losing customers over the TSA Scope-n-Grope policy, but don’t want to openly be “against safety.” The railroads get fined thousands of dollars for the most minor of violations, and I am sure that they aren’t too thrilled about that.

    • Alon Levy

      Bureaucrats don’t really need a reason to justify their own existence. DAD is common government practice when it comes to anything controversial: we’ve done the studies already, trust us, we know what we’re doing, our experts know everything and all other experts don’t know anything. In Berkeley, when the city demanded a tunnel for BART and even offered to pay the extra cost, the agency said it would cost too much, as a result of which the city did its own studies that found otherwise and eventually got the tunnel built for half the predicted cost. Hierarchy is rigid like that.

      The original impetus for some of the rules was safety as conceived in the 1930s. Some, such as the 79 mph speed limit, were an attempt by the ICC to harass the railroads into installing ATS. The buff strength rule, I’m told, was a demand of the USPS, since the mail car was typically right behind the locomotive and therefore suffered the most damage in crashes. Safety by passive weight has an emotional effect, even if it doesn’t help safety at all; soccer moms buy SUVs, regulators who haven’t advanced since the 1930s want trains to weigh more.

      The part about being perceived as anti-safety or anti-security is probably right. Because accidents and bombings on trains and planes are low-probability, high-impact events, it’s easy to sell we-must-do-something policies and harder to argue numbers. FRA defenders on the Internet like to blame every fatal accident in Europe and Japan on lack of buff strength, never mind average death rates per passenger-km.

    • orulz

      Sumitomo/Nippon Sharyo seems like the logical choice for someone to succeed CRC as a supplier of FRA-compliant DMUs for the US market. They already have experience making FRA-compliant EMUs for the US market, and they have plenty of experience building DMU powertrains from Japan and elsewhere in the world. It would seem to be a relatively simple matter to combine the US EMU chassis and the Japanese powertrain together.

      • Alon Levy

        Those DMUs cost twice what their noncompliant brethren do in Europe and Japan, and are a new product, i.e. potentially buggy. The high cost isn’t just a matter of compliance – SMART had very few bidders, in contrast to the 10+ bids agencies solicit when they want to keep costs down – but the potential performance issues are.

          • Alon Levy

            Caltrain got the FRA to let them use off-the-shelf-ish trains, too. The problems with the approach:

            1. It requires absolute time separation; PTC seems insufficient by itself, even though under the FRA’s present approach it should be (namely, if derailments are a problem, then it’s much more important to regulate stopping distances).

            2. Some regulations are still there, making the modification process nontrivial. It’s fine if you’re Kawasaki or Bombardier, and not so fine if you’re CAF, Stadler, or another smaller vendor.

            3. The Caltrain waiver was not meant as a precedent, which means future waiver requests will have to follow the same onerous process. Amtrak, Metra, and the big Northeastern systems could do it if they wanted, but smaller agencies couldn’t; in particular, any plans in e.g. Rhode Island are doomed unless someone else spends the money on the waiver request paperwork.

  4. Zmapper

    My understanding is that the President can issue an executive order directing the FRA to write more favorable regulations, or they have their funding withheld. Obama has shown inaction on this matter, though in his defense he has more important things to worry about. Ray LaHood has yet to come out either way, though he seems to support the status-quo for the most part.

    Mica has a chance here, so I wouldn’t rule him out just yet. If enough people bring this issue up as an important thing to them, will he budge or at least address them? If the Republicans can bring about one thing to fix passenger rail in the US, it is this. Will transit advocates be able to seize the moment and use the Republicans desire for fewer regulations to their advantage? I sure hope they can.

    • anonymouse

      I think it might be possible to sell this to Republicans as a necessary first step before privatization. No sane business would want to operate under these ridiculous regulations, so if they really want to privatize passenger rail, they’d have to reform the regulations first. Of course, it might just be that they hate trains, in which case this wouldn’t make any difference.

      • Nathanael

        It might be possible to sell this to *Mica* as a necessary move. Mica doesn’t seem to hate trains on principle.

        Unfortunately that won’t help it with the Republicans in Congress who *do* hate trains, who will oppose this reform if they can figure out what it means. But hey, getting Mica on board would be good.

    • Brendan

      Oops, nevermind, I see we are talking about the same accident. My point is merely that it was a very bad one, and it came from faulty carriage construction.

  5. Steve S.

    Let’s pause to note that “crashworthiness” seems to be a particularly sacred cow for the FRA. Even on Wikipedia it shows in quotes–no one outside the FRA seems to have a clear idea what that means or why pursue it.

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  7. Nathanael

    Alon, is there any way that you can mail this to the FRA under conditions which force the FRA to publish it as an official comment? Is there any regulation procedure which is open for comment, perhaps? Any lawsuits in need of friend-of-the-court comments? Anything?

    Get these facts into enough official records and eventually someone inside the US government, outside the FRA, but with clout, will start noticing, and then maybe FRA reform will become possible.

    • Alon Levy

      To be honest, I have no idea. The process of lobbying is deliberately opaque everywhere, especially in the US; that’s why lobbyists can charge hundreds of dollars per hour for access (sorry for the link; it’s late). I know about the comment process in EIRs, but that’s about it – and, at any rate, judging by the agency responses to comments that Clem posts on his blog, it’s like talking to a glacier.

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  12. birchjj

    Your claim that the US interstate system is limited to 40t is not entirely correct. The US also operates a permit and exemption system thay sees much heavier vehicles on the road. The interstate highway system itself, intended to link military bases, routinely carries military combinations in excess of 80t, for example the Oshkosh M1070 HTT with M1A2.

    The only country that routinely operates heavier vehicles than the US is Australia.

  13. iucounu9

    Most freight locomotives in the US are around 190-200 tonnes (metric), whereas most European locomotives are around the 80 tonne mark, though occasionally you see the larger 120-130 tonne ones.

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