Category: FRA

The Value of Modern EMUs

I do not know how to code. The most complex actually working code that I have written is 48 lines of Python that implement a train performance calculator that, before coding it, I would just run using a couple of Wolfram Alpha formulas. Here is a zipped version of the program. You can download Python 2.7 and run it there; there may also be online applets, but the one I tried doesn’t work well.

You’ll get a command line interface into which you can type various commands – for example, if you put in 2 + 5 the machine will natively output 7. What my program does is define functions relevant to train performance: accpen(k,a,b,c,m,x1,x2,n) is the acceleration penalty from speed x1 m/s to speed x2 m/s where x1 < x2 (if you try the other way around you’ll get funny results) for a train with a power-to-weight ratio of k kilowatts per ton, an initial acceleration rate of m m/s^2, and constant, linear, and quadratic running resistance terms a, b, and c. To find the deceleration penalty, put in decpen, and to find the total, either put in the two functions and add, or put in slowpen to get the sum. The text of the program gives the values of a, b, and c for the X2000 in Sweden, taken from PDF-p. 64 of a tilting trains thesis I’ve cited many times. A few high-speed trainsets give their own values of these terms; I also give an experimentally measured lower air resistance factor (the quadratic term c) for Shinkansen. Power-to-weight ratios are generally available for trainsets, usually on Wikipedia. Initial acceleration rates are sometimes publicly available but not always. Finally, n is a numerical integration quantity that should be set high, in the high hundreds or thousands at least. You need to either define all the quantities when you run the program, or plug in explicit numbers, e.g. slowpen(20, 0.0059, 0.000118, 0.000022, 1.2, 0, 44.44, 2000).

I’ve used this program to find slow zone penalties for recent high-speed rail calculations, such as the one in this post. I thought it would not be useful for regional trains, since I don’t have any idea what their running resistance values are, but upon further inspection I realized that at speeds below 160 km/h resistance is far too low to be of any consequence. Doubling c from its X2000 value to 0.000044 only changes the acceleration penalty by a fraction of a second up to 160 km/h.

With this in mind, I ran the program with the parameters of the FLIRT, assuming the same running resistance as the X2000. The FLIRT’s power-to-weight ratio is 21.1 in Romandy, and I saw a factsheet in German-speaking Switzerland that’s no longer on Stadler’s website citing slightly lower mass, corresponding to a power-to-weight ratio of 21.7; however, these numbers do not include passengers, and adding a busy but not full complement of passengers adds mass to the train until its power-to-weight ratio shrinks to about 20 or a little less. With an initial acceleration of about 1.2 m/s^2, the program spits out an acceleration penalty of 23 seconds from 0 to 160 km/h (i.e. 44.44 m/s) and a deceleration penalty of 22 seconds. In videos the acceleration penalty appears to be 24 seconds, which difference comes from a slight ramping up of acceleration at 0 km/h rather than instant application of the full rate.

In other words: the program manages to predict regional train performance to a very good approximation. So what about some other trains?

I ran the same calculation on Metro-North’s M-8. Its power-to-weight ratio is 12.2 kW/t (each car is powered at 800 kW and weighs 65.5 t empty), shrinking to 11.3 when adding 75 passengers per car weighing a total of 5 tons. A student paper by Daniel Delgado cites the M-8’s initial acceleration as 2 mph/s, or 0.9 m/s^2. With these parameters, the acceleration penalty is 37.1 seconds and the deceleration penalty is 34.1 seconds; moreover, the paper show how long it takes to ramp up to full acceleration rate, and this adds a few seconds, for a total stop penalty (excluding dwell time) of about 75 seconds, compared with 45 for the FLIRT.

In other words: FRA-compliant EMUs add 30 seconds to each stop penalty compared with top-line European EMUs.

Now, what about other rolling stock? There, it gets more speculative, because I don’t know the initial acceleration rates. I can make some educated guesses based on adhesion factors and semi-reliable measured acceleration data (thanks to Ari Ofsevit). Amtrak’s new Northeast Regional locomotives, the Sprinters, seem to have k = 12.2 with 400 passengers and m = 0.44 or a little less, for a penalty of 52 seconds plus a long acceleration ramp up adding a brutal 18 seconds of acceleration time, or 70 in total (more likely it’s inaccuracies in data measurements – Ari’s source is based on imperfect GPS samples). Were these locomotives to lug heavier coaches than those used on the Regional, such as the bilevels used by the MBTA, the values of both k and m would fall and the penalty would be 61 seconds even before adding in the acceleration ramp. Deceleration is slow as well – in fact Wikipedia says that the Sprinters decelerate at 5 MW and not at their maximum acceleration rate of 6.4 MW, so in the decpen calculation we must reduce k accordingly. The total is somewhere in the 120-150 second range, depending on how one treats the measured acceleration ramp.

In other words: even powerful electric locomotives have very weak acceleration, thanks to poor adhesion. The stop penalty to 160 km/h is about 60 seconds higher than for the M-8 (which is FRA-compliant and much heavier than Amfleet coaches) and 90 seconds higher than for the FLIRT.

Locomotive-hauled trains’ initial acceleration is weak that reducing the power-to-weight ratio to that of an MBTA diesel locomotive (about 5 kW/t) doesn’t even matter all that much. According to my model, the MBTA diesels’ total stop penalty to 160 km/h is 185 seconds excluding any acceleration ramp and assuming initial acceleration is 0.3 m/s^2, so with the ramp it might be 190 seconds. Of note, this model fails to reproduce the lower acceleration rates cited by a study from last decade about DMUs on the Fairmount Line, which claims a 70-second penalty to 100 km/h; such a penalty is far too high, consistent with about 0.2 m/s^2 initial acceleration, which is far too weak based on local/express time differences on the schedule. The actual MBTA trains only run at 130 km/h, but are capable of 160, given long enough interstations – they just don’t do it because there’s little benefit, they accelerate so slowly.

Unsurprisingly, modern rail operations almost never buy locomotives for train services that are expected to stop frequently, and some, including the Japanese and British rail systems, no longer buy electric locomotives at all, using EMUs exclusively due to their superior performance. Clem Tillier made this point last year in the context of Caltrain: in February the Trump administration froze Caltrain’s federal electrification funding as a ploy to attack California HSR, and before it finally relented and released the money a few months later, some activists discussed Plan B, one of which was buying locomotives. Clem was adamant that no, based on his simulations electric locomotives would barely save any time due to their weak acceleration, and EMUs were obligatory. My program confirms his calculations: even starting with very weak and unreliable diesel locomotives, the savings from replacing diesel with electric locomotives are smaller than those from replacing electric locomotives with EMUs, and depending on assumptions on initial acceleration rates might be half as high as the benefits of transitioning from electric locomotives to EMUs (thus, a third as high as those of transitioning straight from diesels to EMUs).

Thus there is no excuse for any regional passenger railroad to procure locomotives of any kind. Service must run with multiple units, ideally electric ones, to maximize initial acceleration as well as the power-to-weight ratio. If the top speed is 160 km/h, then a good EMU has a stop penalty of about 45 seconds, a powerful electric locomotive about 135 seconds, and a diesel locomotive around 190 seconds. With short dwell times coming from level boarding and wide doors, EMUs completely change the equation for local service and infill stops, making more stops justifiable in places where the brutal stop penalty of a locomotive would make them problematic.

Scope Creep is the New Black

In 2009, studies began for a replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac (B&P) Tunnel. This tunnel, located immediately west of Baltimore Penn Station, has sharp curves, limiting passenger trains to about 50 km/h today. The plan was a two-track passenger rail tunnel, called the Great Circle Tunnel since it would sweep a wide circular arc; see yellow line here. It would be about 3 kilometers and cost $750 million, on the high side for a tunnel with no stations, but nothing to get too outraged about. Since then, costs have mounted. In 2014, the plan, still for two tracks, was up to $1 billion to $1.5 billion. Since then, costs have exploded, and the new Final Environmental Impact Statement puts the project at $4 billion. This is worth getting outraged about; at this cost, even at half this cost, the tunnel should not be built. However, unlike in some other cases of high construction costs that I have criticized, here the problem is not high unit costs, but pure scope creep. The new scope should be deleted in order to reduce costs; as I will explain, the required capacity is well within the capability of two tracks.

First, some background, summarized from the original report from 2009, which I can no longer find: Baltimore was a bottleneck of US rail transportation in the mid-19th century. In the Civil War, there was no route through the city; Union troops had to lug supplies across the city, fighting off mobs of Confederate sympathizers. This in turn is because Baltimore’s terrain is quite hilly, with no coastal plain to speak of: the only flat land on which a railroad could be easily built was already developed and urbanized by the time the railroad was invented. It took until the 1870s to build routes across the city, by which time the US already had a transcontinental railroad. Moreover, intense competition between the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) ensured that each company would built its own tunnel. The two-track B&P is the PRR tunnel; there’s also a single-track freight tunnel, originally built by the B&O, now owned by CSX, into which the B&O later merged.

Because of the duplication of routes and the difficult geography, the tunnels were not built to high standards. The ruling grade on the B&P is higher than freight railroads would like, 1.34% uphill departing the station, the steepest on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) south of Philadelphia. This grade also reduces initial acceleration for passenger trains. The tunnel also has multiple sharp curves, with the curve at the western portal limiting trains today to 30 mph (about 50 km/h). The CSX tunnel, called Howard Street Tunnel, has a grade as well. The B&P maintenance costs are high due to poor construction, but a shutdown for repairs is not possible as it is a key NEC link with no possible reroute.

In 2009, the FRA’s plan was to bypass the B&P Tunnel with a two-track passenger rail tunnel, the Great Circle Tunnel. The tunnel would be a little longer than the B&P, but permit much higher speeds, around 160 km/h, saving Acela trains around 1.5 minutes. Actually the impact would be even higher, since near-terminal speed limits are a worse constraint for trains with higher initial acceleration; for high-performance trains, the saving is about 2-2.5 minutes. No accommodation was made for freight in the original plan: CSX indicated lack of interest in a joint passenger and freight rail tunnel. Besides, the NEC’s loading gauge is incompatible with double-stacked freight; accommodating such trains would require many small infrastructure upgrades, raising bridges, in addition to building a new tunnel.

In contrast, the new plan accommodates freight. Thus, the plan is for four tracks, all built to support double-stacked freight. This is despite the fact that there is no service plan that requires such capacity. Nor can the rest of the NEC support double-stacked freight easily. Of note, Amtrak only plans on using this tunnel under scenarios of what it considers low or intermediate investment into high-speed rail. Under the high-investment scenario, the so-called Alternative 3 of NEC Future, the plan is to build a two-track tunnel under Downtown Baltimore, dedicated to high-speed trains. Thus, the ultimate plan is really for six tracks.

Moreover, as pointed out by Elizabeth Alexis of CARRD, a Californian advocacy group that has criticized California’s own high-speed rail cost overruns, the new tunnel is planned to accommodate diesel trains. This is because since 2009, the commuter rail line connecting Baltimore and Washington on the NEC, called the MARC Penn Line, has deelectrified. The route is entirely electrified, and MARC used to run electric trains on it. However, in the last few years MARC deelectrified. There are conflicting rumors as to why: MARC used the pool of Amtrak electric locomotives, and Amtrak is stopping maintaining them as it is getting new locomotives; Amtrak is overcharging MARC on electricity; MARC wants fleet compatibility with its two other lines, which are unelectrified (although the Penn Line has more ridership than both other lines combined). No matter what, MARC should immediately reverse course and buy new electric trains to use on the Penn Line.

Freight trains are more complicated – all US freight trains are dieselized, even under catenary, because of a combination of unelectrified yards and Amtrak’s overcharging on electric rates. However, if freight through the Great Circle Tunnel is desired, Amtrak should work with Norfolk Southern on setting up an electric district, or else Norfolk Southern should negotiate trackage rights on CSX’s existing tunnel. If more freight capacity is desired, private companies NS and CSX can spend their own money on freight tunnels.

In contrast, a realistic scenario would ignore freight entirely, and put intercity and regional trains in the same two-track tunnel. The maximum capacity of a two-track high-speed rail line is 12 trains per hour. Near Baltimore Penn the line would not be high-speed, so capacity is defined by the limit of a normal line, which is about 24 tph. If there is a service plan under which the MARC Penn Line could get more than 12 tph at the peak, I have not seen it. The plans I have seen call for 4 peak tph and 2 off-peak tph. There is a throwaway line about “transit-like” service on page 17, but it’s not clear what is meant in terms of frequency.

Regardless of what the state of Maryland thinks MARC could support, 12 peak regional tph through Baltimore is not a reasonable assumption in any scenario in which cars remain legal. The tunnels are not planned to have any stations, so the only city station west of Baltimore Penn is West Baltimore. Baltimore is not a very dense city, nor is West Baltimore, most famous for being the location of The Wire, a hot location for transit-oriented development. Most of Baltimore’s suburbs on the Penn Line are very low-density. In any scenario in which high-speed rail actually fills 12 tph, many would be long-range commuters, which means people who live in Baltimore and work in Washington would be commuting on high-speed trains and not on regional trains. About the upper limit of what I can see for the Penn Line in a realistic scenario is 6 tph peak, 3-4 tph off-peak.

Moreover, there is no real need to separate high-speed and regional trains for reasons of speed. High-speed trains take time to accelerate from a stop at Baltimore: by the portal, even high-acceleration sets could not go much faster than 200 km/h. An in-tunnel speed limit in the 160-180 km/h area only slows down high-speed trains by a few seconds. Nor does it lead to any noticeable speed difference with electrified regional trains, which would reduce capacity: modern regional trains like the FLIRT accelerate to 160 km/h as fast as the fastest-accelerating high-speed train, the N700-I, both having an acceleration penalty of about 25 seconds.

The upshot is that there is no need for any of the new scope added since 2009. There is no need for four tracks; two will suffice. There is no need to design for double-stacked freight; the rest of the line only accommodates single-stacked freight, and the NEC has little freight traffic anyway. Under no circumstances should diesel passenger trains be allowed under the catenary, not when the Penn Line is entirely electrified.

The new tunnel has no reason to cost $4 billion. Slashing the number of tunnels from four to two should halve the cost, and reducing the tunnels’ size and ventilation needs should substantially reduce cost as well. With the potential time gained by intercity and regional trains and the reduced maintenance cost, the original budget of $750 million is acceptable, and even slightly higher costs can be justified. However, again because the existing two-track capacity can accommodate any passenger rail volume that can be reasonably expected, the new tunnel is not a must-have. $4 billion is too high a cost, and good transit activists should reject the current plan.

Train Weight and Safety

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.

NEC Future: Moving Sideways

The Northeast Corridor high-speed rail investment studies are moving forward, and four days ago the FRA released an early environmental impact study on the subject, as part of the NEC Future program. The study moves in part in the right direction, in that it considers many different segment-level improvements (for example, specific bypasses of curvy segments), but it still isn’t quite going in the right direction. It’s not a bad study in itself, but it does have a lot of drawbacks, and I would like to discuss the ultimate problems with its approach.


The EIS studies three alternatives, as well as an obligatory No Build option.

Alternative 1 includes minimal investment: capacity improvements already under consideration, including new Hudson tunnels; grade-separation of at-grade rail junctions, including Shell interlocking between the Metro-North New Haven Line to Grand Central and the NEC, which imposes a severe speed limit (30 mph, the worst outside major city stations) and a capacity constraint; and a limited I-95 bypass of the legacy NEC route in eastern Connecticut, to avoid the existing movable bridges. The bulk of the expense under this alternative, excluding the predominantly commuter-oriented new Hudson tunnels, involves replacing or bypassing obsolete or slow bridges with faster segments. I have advocated such an approach in certain cases for years, such as the Cos Cob Bridge; if anything, Alternative 1 does not do this enough, but I do appreciate that it uses this solution.

Alternative 2 constructs HSR along the NEC route, except for a major deviation to serve Hartford. It is also bundled with various bypasses and new stations elsewhere: under this alternative, Philadelphia and Baltimore get new stations, with extensive urban tunneling to reach those stations. Alternative 3 does the same, but considers more deviations, including a tunnel between Long Island and New Haven, and an inland route through Connecticut, closer to I-84 than to I-95 and the legacy NEC; it also constructs dedicated HSR tracks between New York and Washington.

The EIS does not include cost figures. It includes travel time figures on PDF-p. 51, which seem to be based on unfavorable assumptions: Alternative 2, called Run 5, does New York-Boston in 2:17 for trains making a few major-city intermediate stops; the Alternative 3 proposals vary widely depending on alignment, of which the fastest, the I-84 inland route, takes 1:51, again making intermediate stops.

The Good

First, the EIS includes service plan elements, stating the projected frequency of regional and express trains using the tracks. It also talks about clockface scheduling and proposes a pulse in Philadelphia, allowing timed transfers in all directions between local and express intercity trains as well as trains on the Keystone corridor. It goes further and discusses regional rail on the intercity tracks in the alternatives that include extensive new construction. In these ways, it focuses on regionwide rail integration far more than previous plans.

Second, in general, the correct way to think about NEC investment is component by component. The EIS gets closer to this ideal, by considering many different route combinations north of New York, and advancing several of them under the Alternative 3 umbrella.

And third, the concept of Alternative 1 is solid. In many cases, it is possible to bundle a trip time or capacity improvement into the replacement of an obsolete structure at very low additional cost. The example I keep coming back to is the Cos Cob Bridge, but it is equally true of the movable bridges east of New Haven. I also greatly appreciate that Alternative 1 recognizes the importance of grade-separating railroad junctions.

The Bad

Ultimately, the EIS does not take the three good concepts – integrated service planning, component-by-component thinking, and bundling trip-time improvements when the marginal cost of doing so is low – to their full conclusion. Thus, there is no attempt at running intercity trains at high speed on shared track with commuter rail with timed overtakes, as I have proposed for both the inner New Haven Line and the Providence Line. On the contrary, the plan for capacity investment on the Providence Line includes extensive three-tracking, rather than limited, strategic four-track bypass segments. This cascades to the trip times, which are quite slow between New York and New Haven (1:08, for an average speed of 103 km/h), and a bit slower than they could be between Providence and Boston (24 minutes, whereas about 21 is possible with about zero investment into concrete).

The concepts of Alternatives 1, 2, and 3 represent bundles of levels of investment. This is the wrong approach. Alternatives 2 and 3 include new tunneled city-center stations in Baltimore and Philadelphia; but wouldn’t we want to consider city-center station tunnels in those two cities separately? It’s possible for one to turn out to be cost-effective but not the other. It’s possible for neither to be cost-effective, but for other improvements included in Alternative 2, such as curve modification around Metropark and Metuchen, to pencil out.

There’s far more interaction between different macro-level alignments, by which I mean such questions as “inland route or coastal route?” and “serve Hartford on the mainline or put it on a branch?”, than between such micro-level investments as individual curve modifications and urban tunnels. This means that instead of discrete alternatives, there should be one umbrella, taking in Alternative 2 and 3 variants, proposing all of those options as possibilities. A future study, with detailed cost figures, could then rank those options in terms of trip time saving per unit of cost, or in terms of social and financial ROI. This way, there would be concrete proposals for what a $5 billion plan, a $10 billion plan, a $20 billion plan, and so on would be.

The Ugly

Two elements in the study are inexcusable. First, the service plan description explicitly keeps Amtrak’s current separation of premium-fare Regionals and even-more-premium-fare Acelas. This is not how the rest of the world structures HSR: even when the HSR fares are substantially higher than the legacy rail fares, as in Spain, the fare per passenger-km is not very high, and is not targeted exclusively at business travelers. In France, the intercity fare (including TGVs, which are the bulk of French intercity traffic) was on average €0.112 per passenger-km in 2011. Premium service is provided on the same TGVs as standard service, in first-class cars. In contrast, Amtrak charges about $0.29 per passenger-km on the Regional and $0.53 on the Acela.

And second, the investment alternatives appear to include more tunneling than is necessary. I will focus on the Hartford-Providence-Boston segment in Alternative 2, since it is less sensitive to assumptions on commuter rail track-sharing than the segments overlapping the New Haven Line. It is possible to go all the way from Hartford to the western margin of the Providence built-up area without any tunneling, and without outrageous bridging; see a past post of mine on the subject here, which concludes that it’s better to just go parallel to I-95 for trip time reasons. In Providence, tunnels are unavoidable, but can still be limited to short segments, mixed with elevated routes along pre-impacted freeway corridors. When I looked at it two years ago, I saw an alignment with just 2 km of tunnel, in Providence itself. In contrast, run A in figure 9 on PDF-p. 56 says that tunnels are about 27% of new construction between Hartford and Boston, which consists of, at a minimum, about 100 km of track between Hartford and Providence.


The EIS is a step in the right direction, insofar as it does consider issues of integrated service planning and prioritizing construction based on where it can be cheaply bundled into bridge replacement. However, it fails to consider cost limitations, as seen in the excessive tunneling proposed even in areas where high-speed tracks can run entirely above ground. It’s considering more options, which is good, but, Alternative 1, while representing a golden concept, is not sufficiently developed.

What I would like to see from a study in this direction is a mixture of the following:

  • Discussion of how to avoid tunnels, including various tradeoffs that have to be made (for example, above-ground construction may require more takings). Generally, I want to see much less tunneling than is currently proposed.
  • A well-developed incremental option, similar to Alternative 1 but more extensive, including for example I-95 bypasses all the way from New Haven to Kingston and along strategic segments of the New Haven Line, such as in Port Chester and Greenwich.
  • Greater integration with regional rail; one litmus test is whether the Providence Line is proposed to be three-tracked for long stretches, or four-tracked at a key bypass station (the options are Sharon and the Route 128-Readville segment), and another is discussion of high-acceleration electric multiple units on the Providence Line and the Penn Line.
  • Unbundling of projects within each alignment – there is no need to, for example, consider the Philadelphia and Baltimore tunnels together (I also think neither is a good idea, but that’s a separate discussion). The view should be toward an optimal set of projects within each alignment, since macro-level decisions such as whether to serve Hartford are more political than micro-level ones of which curves to fix. This permits explicit discussions such as “would you be willing to spend $2 billion and slow through-trains by 9 minutes to serve Hartford?”.

Except for the first, all are kind of present in this study, but in insufficient amount for me to view it as truly a step forward. The ultimate goal must be HSR in the Northeast on a reasonable budget – closer to $10 or even $20 billion than to the Amtrak Vision’s proposed $150 billion – and this requires carefully looking at which scope is required and which is not. The EIS has elements that can be used toward that goal, but ultimately it is a step sideways, not forward or in the wrong direction.

The Magic Triangle: Infrastructure-Timetable-Rolling Stock

In the last month, Amtrak decided not to purchase additional Acela cars, but instead replace the Acela fleet ahead of time, and try to buy trains that aren’t compliant with FRA regulations. More recently, Amtrak and the California HSR Authority decided to bundle their orders together. The latter decision drew plenty of criticism from some good transit advocates, such as Clem Tillier, and even the former decision did. Clem explained,

The whole notion of buying quicker trains for the NEC is ridiculous– the existing Acela Express trains have plenty of oomph (16 kW/tonne) to do anything they need to do. “Lighter” and “faster” isn’t the key to anything on the NEC, and dropping in a higher-performance train will not lead to material trip time improvements. They need to speed up the slow bits first, which isn’t something you do by blowing money on trains.

Clem’s criticism got a fair amount of flak in comments, from me and others, for underestimating how important getting around FRA regulations is. What nobody said in comments, and I only realized after the discussion died out, is how the choice of rolling stock depends heavily on what Amtrak plans to do with infrastructure and service planning in the Northeast. It doesn’t make sense in any case to tether Amtrak’s plans for a corridor that’s in many ways globally unique to the California HSR Authority’s for a fairly standard HSR implementation. But what rolling stock is required, and thus how bad the tethering is, depends on a concrete plan for infrastructure and schedule.

At the highest level, the unique issue with the Northeast Corridor is that significant parts can’t be feasibly upgraded to more than 200-250 km/h or easily bypassed, while others can. This means that there’s a tradeoff between top speed and cant deficiency, and the optimal choice depends on how much investment there is into speeding up segments. In any case it’s critical to improve station throats, interlockings, and railroad junctions, but after the 50 and 100 km/h zones are dealt with, the remaining questions are still nontrivial.

The more money is invested, the less it makes sense to run a 270 mm-cant deficiency, 250 km/h Pendolino, and the more it makes sense to run a Talgo AVRIL or E5/E6, both of which are capable of 350 km/h but only about 180 mm of cant deficiency (or N700-I, which is on paper capable of 330 km/h and about 135 mm and in practice could probably be run at 360 km/h and 175 mm). If there’s one segment that tilts the decision, it’s New Haven-Providence: using the legacy Shore Line, even with heavy upgrades, limits speeds and favors high cant deficiency, while bypassing it on I-95 favors high top speeds. But even the New York-Washington segment of today has a few curves strategically located at the worst locations, which make higher tilt degree a benefit.

In medium-speed territory, the Pendolino versus E5/AVRIL/N700-I decision is the muddiest. I ran rough simulations on an upgraded New Haven Line, with bypasses including those I advocated as a first step but also additional ones in the more difficult Stamford-New Haven segment. A train with E5 cant deficiency and N700-I acceleration did New York-New Haven in 32 minutes, and a Pendolino with all cars powered did it in 30. Neither is a standard trainset, though the former is very close to standard (and the Talgo AVRIL is also quite close). The Pendolino as it is, with about half the cars powered, has low power by HSR standards, and this is a problem for accelerating back from a slow zone at medium speed. With all cars powered (which is feasible, at higher acquisition cost) it’s still far from turbocharged, but can change speed more easily. An off-the-shelf Pendolino would not beat an E5 or AVRIL or N700-I on such a corridor, and of course would not beat it south of New York or north of New Haven.

Since nonstandard trains cost more, it’s important to also decide whether they’re worth the cost. Bearing in mind that Amtrak said a new noncompliant trainset costs $35-55 million, which is above the range for 8-car trains (China pays about $4 million per 350+ km/h car), so it may already be factoring in a premium, paying more for trains is worth it whenever the benefits to passengers are noticeable enough. This, like choosing very high-speed rolling stock rather than a Pendolino, is the most effective at high levels of infrastructure investment. An off-the-shelf Pendolino is good enough for most applications. So is an off-the-shelf N700-I without tilt. It’s okay to be 15 minutes slower than the cutting edge if the cutting edge is too expensive. But the effect of 15 minutes on ridership is more pronounced if it’s the difference between 1:35 and 1:50 than if it’s the difference between 3:00 and 3:15. In addition, the faster the service is, the more revenue each train earns, and this allows spreading the extra acquisition cost among more passengers.

Another factor that’s neglected, at least in public statements, is the service plan. Amtrak service is heavily padded: the fastest northbound Acela is scheduled to do Providence-Boston in 47 minutes, but in the opposite direction it’s 34. Remove the Route 128 stop and this can get close to 30 or even below it. About the fastest trains can go with no schedule padding is 19.25 minutes, and reasonable but not onerous padding raises it to about 20.5. Clearly, more of the difference comes from operating efficiencies than from any speed raising; the Acela already goes 240 km/h between Providence and Boston and already has about 180 mm (7″) cant deficiency.

The limiting factor here is more MBTA ownership and operating culture. A good service plan would make it clear how trains can share the corridor (and the same is true on the New Haven Line, another unduly slowed commuter-owned segment), and because MBTA trains are so slow, any cooperation would involve public statements regarding upgrades to the MBTA. The Acela has level boarding at every stop except New London, which is the easiest to cut out and should be bypassed together with the rest of Shore Line East. It’s the MBTA that has non-level boarding, which remains one of the biggest schedule risks, requiring plenty of recovery time to deal with possible long dwell times coming from above-average crowds.

The problem is that Amtrak has made no statements regarding how to integrate the three legs of the magic triangle. It proposed the Vision plan, which even political transit bloggers like Ben Kabak note the extreme cost of; there’s no funding, and the first segment for which it’s trying to obtain funding, the Gateway Tunnel, is very far from the top priority for speed or even for intercity rail capacity. It now proposes new rolling stock, but is unclear about what the trains are supposed to do except be very fast. (Bundling with a new-build line like California makes sense only if all curves are straightened to a radius of 4+ kilometers, even extremely expensive ones.)

Perhaps it’s a feature of opaque government, that Amtrak refuses to say how much money it needs to meet each timetable and capacity goal. For example, it could say that if Congress gives it $10 billion it could reduce travel time from Washington to Boston from the present 6:45 to 5:45 while also running a peak of 4 long trains per hour at that speed. (I think for $10 billion it’s possible to get down to 3:30 or at worst 4:00, but this is a matter of cost control and not just transparency, though transparency can indirectly lead to better cost control.) This would involve heavy cooperation with the commuter railroads that share its tracks and joint plans, as well as detailed public plans for how much to spend on each segment and for what purpose. This is routine in Swiss rail infrastructure planning, since all major projects have to be approved by referendum, but does not happen in the US. It could be that Amtrak knows what it’s doing but acts like it doesn’t because the structure of government in the US is such that these decisions are made behind closed doors.

But more likely, Amtrak doesn’t know what it’s doing, and is just proposing new initiatives that make it seem forward-looking. Changing FRA rules is an unmixed blessing. Bundling an order with California HSR is not. The fact that Amtrak is doing so, while keeping mum about even what kind of rolling stock it thinks it needs, suggests that it reverses the usual way reform should be: instead of a need for reform producing good results and thence good headlines, a need to get good headlines about reform produces reform ideas that sound good. Some of those good-sounding ideas really are good, but not all are. It’s important for good transit advocates to distinguish the two both privately and publicly.

I feel like in the last two years, we’ve seen important American transit and railroad managers say correct things. Shortly after I started making noise in comments about New York’s outsized subway construction costs, Jay Walder said as much in a report entitled Making Every Dollar Count. Joe Lhota proposed through-running on commuter rail as a solution to improve efficiency. Scott Stringer, too, talked publicly about comparative construction costs, and for all of my criticisms of transit managers who say that, I thought it was enough for him to say that as a political candidate for a medium-term office to deserve my endorsement for the mayoral election, which he unfortunately bowed out of. The FRA proposed to start working on new rules for rolling stock last year. At Amtrak, we’ve just now seen Joseph Boardman propose noncompliant rolling stock. Perhaps I’d be more optimistic if Walder and Lhota had stayed at the MTA for longer to implement their positive reform ideas, instead of using it as a springboard to secure a higher-paying job or run for mayor, but increasingly it looks like the good reform talk is not generally accompanied by good actions.

This is, again, where good transit advocates can have the most influence. We more or less know which reforms are required and which are not. There are disagreements at times (Clem, for one, has much better credentials as a good transit activist than I do), but on most of the agenda items there’s agreement. We already know what details we might want to see from a good plan of action, and the advantage of this is that we can check proposed plans against them. That Amtrak’s gotten so many details wrong suggests that it still doesn’t know what the best practices for rail construction are, even if the basic idea of getting around FRA rules is sound. I wish I didn’t have to say it, but I’ll believe Amtrak’s improved when I see it.

Quick Note: Good News Week

Via Systemic Failure, I learn that the FRA is finally reforming its train safety regulations on its own. This is an amazing development, partial as it is. This appears to derive from the FRA’s previous research into crash energy management, which concluded that buff strength alone did poorly at protecting train occupants. This development is especially good for the MBTA and Metra, as agencies that could make large orders, especially of EMUs if they electrify (and both have good reason to); this will allow them to obtain better EMUs, for example measured by weight, than currently run in New York and Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, the reforms are partial, and lack two elements. First, they start from past crash tests, rather than from good rolling stock, and may still require imports to undergo substantial modifications; this is not a problem for large orders, but tends to raise the unit cost for small orders. That said, the rules are being developed in consultation with representatives from many rolling stock vendors, not only the large ones as with Caltrain’s waiver application but also smaller ones such as Nippon Sharyo and Stadler. Second, they do nothing about operating rules as opposed to procurement rules; these include brake tests, cant deficiency rules (only partially reformed), and so on. Still, count this as a positive development for the FRA.

The other good transit news: the Florida East Coast Railway, a Class II railroad primarily carrying intermodal traffic between Jacksonville and Miami, is announcing a privately-funded $1 billion project to build a medium-speed line from its mainline to Orlando and run passenger trains between Orlando and Miami, making the trip in 3 hours. This corresponds to an average speed of about 80 mph, just under 130 km/h, or in other words the same as that achieved by the supposedly high-speed Acela between New York and Washington.

Train Weights, Bilevel Version

My previous table of train weights covered single-level trains, with the exception of the ultralight (for a bilevel) TGV Duplex. By request, here is a similar version for bilevels. Note that very light trains such as the E231 or DB’s Class 423 are inherently single-level – though a bilevel Green Car trailer version of the E231 is quite light, even at 50% heavier than a single-level trailer.

Recall that Lng is length in meters, Wt is empty weight in (metric) tons, Width is in meters, Pow is maximum short-term power in megawatts, P/W is power-to-weight in kilowatts per ton, Ld is average load per axle in tons, and Wt/Lng is weight in tons per meter of train length.

Train Lng Wt Width Pow P/W Ld Wt/lng
E231 series Green Car 20 36 2.95 0 0 9 1.79
215 Series 200 368.5* 2.9 1.92 5.2 9.2 1.84
TGV Duplex 200 380 2.9 8.8 23.2 14.6 1.9
Bom. BiLevel Coach 26 50 3 0 0 12.5 1.91
KISS, Regional 150 297 2.8 6 20.2 12.4 1.97
KISS, Interregio 100 212 2.8 6 28.3 13.3 2.11
E4 Series 201 428 3.38 6.72 15.7 13.4 2.13
NS DD-AR (w/ mDDM) 100 221 2.8 2.4 10.86 13.8 2.21
GO Transit MPI hauling 12 Bom. BiLevel Coaches 332 734 3.24 3 4.1 14.1 2.21
Metra Highliner 26 59 3.2? ? ? 14.8 2.28
Caltrain Coradia 213 517 3.2? ? ? 16.2 2.43
X40 (Coradia, Sweden) 81.5 205 2.96 2.4 11.7 17.1 2.52
Caltrain MPI hauling 5 Bom. BiLevel Coaches 150.5 384 3.24 3 7.8 16 2.55
CityRail A-sets 78 201 3.04 ? ? 12.6 2.57
MI 2N 112 288 2.9 4.5 15.6 14.4 2.57
Colorado Railcar, bilevel 26 74 3.2? 0.96 13 18.5 2.86

*Caltrain claims the same weight – see pages 36 (which partially confuses the train with a heavier Shinkansen) and 45 of its document about bilevel EMUs. Japanese Wikipedia claims a much lower weight, coming from substituting 2 for the leading 3. Given everything else, the higher figure seems more likely (with thanks to Miles Bader for pointing the above link out).

The observation here is that FRA compliance no longer neatly separates trains. Part of it comes from the very heavy low-speed trains in France, of which the MI 2N is an example. I do not know whether this is caused by special regulations – on the one hand, the TGV reportedly has 500 tons of buff strength, but on the other hand, Sweden’s X40 is also quite heavy.

The reason for this is that while high buff strength adds weight, its effect is much larger on lightweight frames than on heavyweight frames. A train that is already heavy will become heavier if it is required to be FRA-compliant, but typically only by a few tons. New Jersey Transit’s ALP-46 locomotive is 7 tons heavier than the European locomotive it is based on, of which 4.5 come from FRA regulations. This applies equally well to low-power bilevels. Even lightweight, high-power products such as the KISS would be considered middleweight by single-level standards.

Observe, however, that to achieve acceptable average weight, FRA-compliant products have to sacrifice power (as is done in Toronto or on Caltrain) and also to have a heavy locomotive drag many relatively light coaches, raising axle load. For fast service, one must use a product like the Colorado Railcar, which is the heaviest train per unit of weight on both this table and the single-level table, and which also awkwardly is a high-level train with much greater height than permitted by any European loading gauge, avoiding the low-floor weight penalty.

FRA Rules Are Not Just Buff Strength

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.

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.

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.