A recent New Jersey Transit train accident, in which one person was killed and more than a hundred was injured, has gotten people thinking about US rail safety again. New Jersey has the second lowest fuel tax in the US, and to avoid raising it, Governor Chris Christie cut the New Jersey Transit budget (see PDF-pp. 4-5 here); perhaps in reaction to the accident, Christie is announcing a long-in-the-making deal that would raise the state’s fuel tax. But while the political system has been discussing funding levels, transit advocates have been talking about regulations. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether positive train control could have prevented the accident, which was caused by overspeed. And on Twitter, people are asking whether Federal Railroad Administration regulations helped protect the train from greater damage, or instead made the problem worse. It’s the last question that I want to address in this post.
FRA regulations mandate that US passenger trains be able to withstand considerable force without deformation, much more so than regulations outside North America. This has made American (and Canadian) passenger trains heavier than their counterparts in the rest of the world. This was a major topic of discussion on this blog in 2011-2: see posts here and here for an explanation of FRA regulations, and tables of comparative train weights here and here. As I discussed back then, FRA regulations do not prevent crumpling of passenger-occupied space better than European (UIC) regulations do in a collision between two trains, except at a narrow range of relative speeds, about 20-25 mph (30-40 km/h); see PDF-pp. 60-63 of a study by Caltrain, as part of its successful application for waivers from the most constraining FRA regulations. To the extent people think FRA regulations have any safety benefits, it is purely a stereotype that regulations are good, and that heavier vehicles are safer in crashes.
All of this is old discussions. I bring this up to talk about the issue of systemwide safety. Jacob Anbinder, accepting the wrong premise that FRA regulations have real safety benefits, suggested on Twitter that rail activists should perhaps accept lower levels of rail safety in order to encourage mode shift from much more dangerous cars toward transit. This is emphatically not what I mean: as I said on Twitter, the same policies and practices that lead to good train safety also lead to other good outcomes, such as punctuality. They may seem like a tradeoff locally within each country or region, but globally the correlation goes the other way.
In 2011, I compiled comparative rail safety statistics for the US (1 dead per 3.4 billion passenger-km), India (1 per 6.6 billion), China (1 per 55 billion), Japan (1 per 51 billion), South Korea (1 per 6.7 billion), and the EU (1 per 13 billion), based on Wikipedia’s lists of train accidents. The number for India is an underestimate, based on general reports of Mumbai rail passenger deaths, and I thought the same was true of China. Certainly after the Wenzhou accident, the rail activists in the developed world that I had been talking to stereotyped China as dangerous, opaque, uninterested in passengers’ welfare. Since then, China has had a multi-year track record without such accidents, at least not on its high-speed rail network. Through the end of 2015, China had 4.3 billion high-speed rail passengers, and by 2015 its ridership grew to be larger than the rest of the world combined. I do not have statistics for high-speed passenger-km, but overall, the average rail trip in China, where there’s almost no commuter rail, is about 500 km long. If this is also true of its high-speed rail network, then it’s had 2.15 trillion high-speed passenger-km, and 1 fatality per 54 billion. This is worse than the Shinkansen and TGV average of zero fatalities, but much better than the German average, which is weighed down by Eschede. (While people stereotype China as shoddy, nobody so stereotypes Germany despite the maintenance problems that led to the Eschede accident.)
I bring up China’s positive record for two reasons. First, because it is an example of how reality does not conform to popular stereotypes. Both within China and in the developed world, people believe China makes defective products, cheap in every sense of the term, and compromises safety; the reality is that, while that is true of China’s general environmental policy, it is not true of its rail network. And second, China does not have buff strength requirements for trains at all; like Japan, it focuses on collision avoidance, rather than on survivability.
The importance of the approaches used in Japan and on China’s high-speed rail network is that it provides safety on a systemwide level. By this I do not mean that it encourages a mode shift away from cars, where fatality rates are measured in 1 per hundreds of millions of passenger-km and not per tens of billions. Rather, I mean that the entire rail network is easier to run safely when the trains are lighter.
It is difficult to find exact formulas for the dependence of maintenance costs on train weight. A discussion on Skyscraper City, sourced to Bombardier, claims track wear grows as the cube of axle load. One experiment on the subject, at low speeds and low-to-moderate axle loads, finds a linear relationship in both axle load and speed. A larger study finds a relationship with exponents of 3-5 in both dynamic axle load and speed. The upshot is that at equal maintenance cost, lighter trains can be run faster, or, at equal speed, lighter trains make it easier to maintain the tracks.
The other issue is reliability. As I explained on Twitter, the same policies that promote greater safety also make the system more reliable, with fewer equipment failures, derailments, and slowdowns. On the LIRR, the heavy diesel locomotives have a mean distance between failures of 20,000-30,000 km, and the medium-weight EMUs 450,000 (see PDF-pp. 21-22 here). The EMUs that run on the LIRR (and on Metro-North), while heavier than they should be because of FRA requirements, are nonetheless pretty good rolling stock. But in Tokyo, one rolling stock manufacturer claims a mean distance between failures of 1.5 million km. While within Japan, the media responds to fatal accidents by questioning whether the railroads prioritize the timetable over safety, the reality is that the overarching focus on reliability that leads to low maintenance costs and high punctuality also provides safety.
In the US, especially outside the EMUs on the LIRR and Metro-North, the situation is the exact opposite. The mean distance between failures for the LIRR’s diesel locomotives is not unusually low: on the MBTA, the average is about 5,000 km, and even on the newest locomotives it’s only about 20,000 (State of the Commuter Rail System, PDF-pp. 8-9). The MBTA commuter rail system interacts with freight trains that hit high platforms if the boxcars’ doors are left open, which can happen if vandals or train hoppers open the doors; as far as I can tell, the oversize freight on the MBTA that prevents easy installation of high platforms systemwide is not actually oversize, but instead veers from the usual loading gauge due to such sloppiness.
Of course, given a fixed state of the infrastructure and the rolling stock, spending more money leads to more safety. This is why Christie’s budget cuts are important to publicize. Within each system, there are real tradeoffs between cost control and safety; to Christie, keeping taxes low is more important than smooth rail operations, and insofar as it is possible to attribute political blame for such low-probability events as fatal train accidents, Christie’s policies may be a contributing factor. My contention here is different: when choosing a regulatory regime and an overarching set of operating practices, any choice that centers high performance and high reliability at the expense of tradition will necessarily be safer. The US rail community has a collective choice between keeping doing what it’s doing and getting the same result, and transitioning operating practices to be closer to the positive results obtained in Japan; on safety, there is no tradeoff.