The FRA waiver approach, adopted by Caltrain, appears to be a relatively simple way for agencies to get out of the buff strength rule. Caltrain applied for and got a waiver from a number of regulations that increase train weight, including buff strength but also several others. The comments written in Caltrain’s application, as well as the experience from SMART, suggest that there are problems with the FRA bigger than just the one regulation that’s most glaringly unnecessary.
First, the regulations that Caltrain asked out of are not just buff strength, but also less sexy rules: corner posts, collision posts, anti-climb mechanism, and so on. All of these are extra work for trains, and Caltrain indicates that it’s impossible to modify European EMUs to meet these rules for a small order. It would result in “no bids,” the application said, based on feedback from the largest vendors.
Now, SMART’s experience is very high capital costs for rolling stock: $6.7 million per two-car DMU. Those are compliant DMUs; there were four other bids, some compliant and some not, all more expensive. However, even the noncompliant bids were not off-the-shelf. They were not even noncompliant in general – they needed to comply with all rules except buff strength. Off-the-shelf DMUs run on mainline tracks in North America with time separation. One positive example is the O-Train, which has spent $34 million on six three-car sets for a service expansion, using completely off-the-shelf Alstom Coradia trains for the new order; the initial order not only used off-the-shelf Bombardier Talents, but also piggybacked on a large Deutsche Bahn order.
Although the performance under a partial FRA regime can be comparable to that under a European regime, the cost of modifying small orders can be very large, as Caltrain discovered. As a result, commuter rail agencies make do with inferior products such as the Colorado Railcar (which loses 42 seconds accelerating to 60 mph, vs. about 30 for a Stadler GTW) and pay $4-5 million per car.
For large orders, the problem is less acute, and indeed, Northeastern commuter rail EMUs are fine, if not great. The M-7s are a little heavier than comparable European EMUs, and the Silverliner Vs and the M-8s are much heavier, but the cost per car is only about $2.5 million, the performance is fairly good, and the reliability is very high. Spread over more than a thousand M-7s, the modifications required to build a compliant EMU are not too expensive. The FRA or other branches of the government could theoretically try to get uniform designs for other cars to spread modification costs over multiple orders, but instead, the next-generation trains proposed for Amtrak orders are overweight and low-performance, and explicit geared toward the needs of local manufacturers rather than those of transit agencies.
Another issue is the reliance on large vendors in drafting regulations and waivers. That’s a first line of cost increase, since it could shut out smaller vendors, which can’t adapt to the unique regulations so easily. Auckland had 11 bids for rolling stock for its electrification project; Caltrain designed its waiver in consultation with 4. On top of this, note again that Caltrain said about the buff strength rule that “to require compliance would result in no bids received.” If there could be bids but they are too high, then it’s harder if at all possible to get waivers. Many of the regulations are quite small and vehicles could be modified to meet them, for some additional cost – nothing huge by itself, but added together, it makes a DMU cost $3.3 million per car and not $2 million.
Finally, while the waiver regime allows new rolling stock to get in, it says nothing about maintenance regimes. Caltrain did not ask for waivers from maintenance requirements, even though the FRA discourages multiple-unit trains by treating them as locomotives for maintenance purposes. The Talents, Coradias, etc. have established maintenance requirements, and often agencies order not only the trains but also maintenance over their lifetime, from the manufacturers, who already know how to fix them. They do not explode from undermaintenance in Europe. Neither do their counterparts in Japan.
The alternative approach is to start from service needs, rather than from bureaucratic needs. This is what I mean when I talk about FRA revolutions. A train or a train concept with a history of success elsewhere should by default be legal on mainline tracks in the US and so should the established operating and maintenance practice, and it’s up to the FRA to show that it’s unsafe rather than up for the manufacturers to prove it once again. This is to a large extent the approach used with time-share waivers, which have put Talents and soon Coradias on mainline track in Canada and GTWs and Desiros in the US. If collisions with freight trains are prevented using other means (not that FRA compliance offers much protection to begin with!), and there is a track record of normal operation absent freight trains, there should not be problems with running those trains on shared mainline track. They do it in Europe and Japan, more safely than in the US. There’s no legitimate reason not to import that practice.