Category: FRA

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.

The FRA Doesn’t Need Reform – It Needs A Revolution

Via Systemic Failure, I’ve learned that the federal government is implementing regulatory reform, including some cosmetic changes to railroad regulations; for details, go to this file and see pages 30-41, 54-61, 105-106, 108-109, 112-113, and 115-127.

Drunk Engineer already rightly excoriates the FRA for sticking to its static buff strength regulations even in the face of positive train control, but the full quote given by the FRA to the SRC, which raised the issue, showcases Kafkaesque malevolence. On pages 39-40, the FRA says:

FRA’s regulatory approach to passenger equipment safety is balanced and does incorporate both crash avoidance and crashworthiness measures.  FRA necessarily considers the safety of the rail system as a whole, beginning with ways first to avoid an accident, such as through adherence to standards for railroad signal and operating systems (to avoid a collision) and railroad track (to avoid a derailment).  Yet, FRA is indeed concerned about mitigating the consequences of an accident, should one occur, and crashworthiness features are an essential complement to crash avoidance measures in providing for the overall safety of the rail system.

FRA has tailored the application of its crashworthiness standards.  See 49 CFR 238 Subpart C, and § 229.141.  SRC itself notes that, as a tourist railroad, it is exempt from the crashworthiness standards.  Similarly, FRA has established a policy to issue waivers under appropriate circumstances to help limit the impact of these standards on light rail equipment that shares use of trackage or rights-of-way with conventional rail equipment (see appendix A to 49 CFR part 211).  FRA has also continued to explore means of making its standards more performance-based.  FRA has developed guidelines through the RSAC process for waiver approval to use alternative, performance-based crashworthiness standards for passenger equipment operating at speeds up to 125 mph.  FRA is pursuing a similar approach through the RSAC process to develop standards for passenger rail equipment operating at speeds up to 220 mph.

FRA’s intent has been to develop a set of standards in the alternative to FRA’s structural and occupant protection requirements for railroad passenger equipment operating at speeds up to 125 mph that would provide the same level of safety and yet be more performance based and more technology and design neutral.  Consequently, FRA does anticipate that the alternative standards will provide a benefit to the industry to the extent regulated entities take advantage of the additional flexibility.

Observe that, after saying its regulations are important for the safety of the entire system, the FRA basically admits they’re bad for modern passenger rail, and proposes that railroads that want to do better seek waivers. At this stage, I doubt even the FRA believes that its trains are safer for occupants in crashes with freight trains than UIC-compliant EMUs with crumple zones. The FRA is simply justifying its own existence here, giving itself more jurisdiction than it really needs. Demanding that railroads paint an F on the front end of every locomotive (p. 40-41) is a joke; making agencies jump through hoops to obtain trains that don’t telescope in crashes is a danger to public safety.

If the FRA truly believed its rules were necessary for freight compatibility – or if it were simply captive to freight interests – it would promulgate a streamlined process by which passenger-primary lines can switch to UIC or Japanese rules. New operations could convert lines to those rules by consent of the host freight railroad; it would be a bonanza for the freight rail industry and a ripoff for passenger rail, but it would only impose costs on the public that the public could pay. It would not require a new waiver application from each operator, which costs more than what smaller operators can pay.

Note also that Amtrak, far from following the FRA’s request for waiver applications, only asked for one major change: it asked for performance-based track inspection regimes (p. 124), rather than ones based only on top speed as determined by track class. The FRA brushed it off, saying that maintenance requirements and derailment risk depend on speed. An agency that really thinks this, and doesn’t think axle load or center of gravity matters, should not be in charge of developing alternative standards.

The FRA is beyond hope. Its direct boss, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, should submit a list of about 10-20 existing regional and high-speed trains, from both Europe and Japan, and tell the FRA that it has until the end of the year to write rules under which all listed trains can run on US tracks unmodified except for such modular changes as loading gauge, or else it’ll be dissolved. Freight rail could regulate itself; the AAR won’t do a worse job than the FRA is currently doing. Passenger rail should just pick either the UIC or Japan and follow its rules consistently. Without this gun to the FRA’s proverbial head, nothing will change. It needs revolution, not gradual reform.

Followup on the FRA and Amtrak

My posts about the FRA and American railroad incompetence are getting a lot of traction nowadays, thanks to links from Aaron Renn and Stephen Smith, of which the latter has been relinked by Matt Yglesias. The comments to those posts have often brought up the question of why I believe that come 2015, the buff strength requirement will be gone. They also sometimes propose that FRA regulations are useful in the unique circumstances of American railroads. Let me address both concerns right now.

In 2009, Amtrak published its first document proposing higher-speed trains in the Northeast. In this document Amtrak states that,

Subsequent analysis by Amtrak suggests achieving 2 hour and 15 minute service between New York and Washington in the long-term by 2030 will require modifications to existing equipment, or deployment of next generation rolling stock, to allow required speeds through curves, as well as expansion of capacity into and through Manhattan, NY. Table 2 includes estimates of costs required to replace Amtrak’s existing NEC fleet with next generation equipment. As discussed above, this next generation of equipment has the potential to be lighter, and thus faster, than the current generation. However, performance specifications for such equipment will need to be developed and will depend in part on emerging standards for positive train control (PTC) and crash avoidance systems.

My reading of this is that the Amtrak believes the FRA will indeed waive buff strength requirements once PTC comes online; this is buttressed by the fact that Caltrain got a waiver, based in part on a requirement that it install PTC first. The PTC discussed doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere good – note the discussion of developing performance specifications rather than using the emerging worldwide standard that is ERTMS – but it does indicate that Amtrak’s new premium-cost locomotives could be much lighter.

As an aside, this document is what first clued me in to Amtrak’s incompetence. For example, immediately below the paragraph quoted above, Amtrak proposes to raise cant deficiency (“underbalance”) on Metro-North territory from 3″ to 5″; the Acela trainsets can do 7″, and Pendolino trainsets close to 11″. Based on this rather low standard, Amtrak claims “an additional five minutes of trip time reductions are potentially available with the deployment of modified or new equipment.” (Try half an hour.)

As for the second concern, usually the arguments in favor of FRA regulations hinge upon exaggerated claims that the US railroad system is unique. One commenter claims that railroaders call cab cars coffin cars because of the possibility of grade crossing accidents. In reality, lightweight trains safely cross roads at-grade abroad, to say nothing of light rail networks in the US.

There are still plenty of old-time railroaders who believe that in crashes, FRA compliance offers extra protection. It does not. Please read Caltrain’s structural report and compliance assessment for the FRA waiver, which include a technical explanation of the mechanisms for accident survivability used in Europe. Caltrain’s simulations show that high buff strength is only relevant at relative speeds between 15 and 25 mph, and that European EMUs and compliant cars are equally safe in grade crossing accidents. The FRA seems convinced of the safety of European EMUs; it is reportedly harassing Japanese manufacturers about compliance with European survivability regulations (for example, in collisions with a 6-kg steel ball) rather than American ones. Finally, high weight is a liability as much as it is an asset: at Chatsworth, the loss of life came from the fact that the first passenger car telescoped into the heavy locomotive.

Update: the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility, an organization supporting Amtrak’s NEC Master Plan, published an article claiming Amtrak made the right choice to buy the aforementioned locomotives, claiming that Amtrak is underfunded. Recall that the Master Plan is the document that came out of the report referenced above, complete with the same laconic assumptions on train performance, as well as false claims about capacity constraints. The Business Alliance’s article’s greatest sin is the claim at the end that,

Smith also ignores the question of funding when he suggests that Amtrak should purchase Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) for the NEC. Unlike locomotives and non-motorized passenger cars, currently in use on the NEC, EMUs have smaller engines on each passenger car. The debate between investing in EMUs vs. locomotives + cars is beyond the scope of this post. Still, what’s clear is that EMUs would need a significantly higher up-front investment and require an even larger amount of government support, which is highly unlikely at this time.

In reality, a new unpowered Amtrak coach costs $2.2 million, about the same as a decent FRA-compliant EMU on the LIRR and Metro-North. And the three European EMU orders in Railway Gazette’s April 2011 compilation cost between $1.3 and $2 million per car.

Bad FRA Regulations

Since many people are linking to my previous post identifying the FRA as the primary obstacle to an American railroad revival, I’m hoisting a comment I wrote on the Infrastructurist detailing some of the FRA regulations that are the most destructive.

The original references for this are from Zierke’s website and the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, but those are a few years out of date, and recently the FRA has made noises about reforming the first two rules, which are the most destructive to intercity rail. Unfortunately, those reforms are not good enough, chiefly because they are designed to preserve the FRA’s bureaucracy, piling more obstacles on any attempt to modernize US trains.

1. 945 tons buff strength for locomotives and end cars and 360 for coaches (link); the maximum that’s even partly defensible is Europe’s 200, and Japan’s 100 is perfectly safe. This is by far the most important: as a result of this rule, the Acela power cars weigh 90 metric tons, vs. 68 for the TGV power cars they’re derived from. Zierke notes that the lighter the train, the higher the FRA weight penalty is.

2. 4″ maximum cant deficiency for non-tilting trains, except 5″ on track connected to 110+ mph rail (derisively called the magic HSR waiver by railfans). The Acela is limited to 7″ despite tilting. Non-tilting TGVs do 180 mm in France (about the same as the Acela) and tilting trains do 250-300 mm in Japan and a bunch of European countries, no special testing required except on actual track. In addition, superelevation is limited by regulation to 7″ minus a safety margin; high-speed lines around the world have 180 mm actual superelevation, and the Tokaido Shinkansen, which has tighter curves, has 200 mm.

Those two regulations are already being somewhat modified. Amtrak seems to believe that the nationwide mandate for positive train control (PTC), passed in 2008 in response to the Chatsworth crash, will allow it to run lighter trains; the FRA has granted Caltrain a waiver from the FRA buff strength rule provisioned upon PTC installation. As for cant deficiency, the FRA has already decided on a revision allowing tilting trains up to 225 mm cant deficiency, and non-tilting trains up to 150 mm by testing.

Unfortunately, those two reforms only look good at first glance. The Caltrain waiver application from the buff strength rule was devised in consultation with the biggest rolling stock manufacturers – Bombardier, Kawasaki, Alstom, and Siemens – which indicates which rules they could comply with and which they could not. This may well lock out smaller vendors, such as Stadler and CAF. Stadler’s FLIRT is the fastest-accelerating, highest-powered regional train on the market; it is also very light, and may well not comply even with regulations Caltrain did not ask out of.

In addition, since such waivers depend on PTC, if the freight railroads succeed in their attempt to delay or water down PTC implementation, which they consider too expensive, then future rolling stock purchases will remain heavy. Indeed, Amtrak’s purchase of new electric locomotives, due to enter service in 2013, is FRA-compliant and more expensive than purchases of similar locomotives in Europe; this despite the fact that they are intended to run on the Northeast Corridor, which has a PTC system.

As for the cant deficiency waiver, it was obtained by testing existing outdated technology in the US, such as Amtrak locomotives and the EMUs used on commuter rail in the Northeast. No attempt was made to use high-cant deficiency European technology, a point also made by Drunk Engineer. Such trains would have to be tested to the FRA’s satisfaction, and not be allowed to run at the same speeds as they do in Europe. In fact the FRA’s proposed rule revision includes a language about higher track standards for cant deficiency higher than 5″, never mind that TGVs run on less than perfect legacy track at 7″ cant deficiency.

In addition, for high-cant deficiency operation, it’s important to regulate both cant deficiency and the rate at which it changes. The muscles can adjust to lateral acceleration, given enough time; thus the jerk, or the rate of change of acceleration, must also be prescribed. With a proper superelevation ramp and change in cant deficiency based on the abilities of existing trains, high speeds and high cant deficiencies can combine well, as found in a Swedish study about the feasibility of very high-speed trains on legacy track.

Additional FRA regulations, which hamper regional rail more than intercity rail, seem to be here to stay. These include the following:

3. Two employees per train; regional trains should have one. But, bear in mind, many regional operators have multiple conductors, and the limit to lower staffing is antiquated trains or managerial incompetence rather than the FRA. For example, the MBTA believes it needs one conductor per two cars.

4. Brake tests at every turnaround. Intercity trains can enter a stub-end station and back away in 3-4 minutes, and do every day in Germany; regional trains turn around in 3-4 minutes in Japan. However, Amtrak makes Keystone trains dwell 10 minutes at Philadelphia.

5. Four-quadrant gates required for quiet zones; these make quiet zones expensive, and as a result trains have to blare loud horns at grade crossings, alienating neighbors and creating NIMBYism.

6. No regulations encouraging high-performance lightweight cars and good signaling. The FRA should mandate a modern system, preferably ETCS, which permits a throughput of up to 37 trains per hour at standard speeds. This is 12 tph more than currently can run between New Jersey and New York, and would be about $13 billion cheaper than Amtrak’s Gateway tunnel proposal, which would add 21 tph.

The multitude of bad regulations is why I think FRA reform has to be intensive, without any half-measures. The new rail regulations in the US should as much as possible be based on UIC (predominantly European) and Japanese regulations, with the present status quo ignored.

The only role of American regulators should be to devise a coherent system to allow European and Japanese trains to interact with each other. In some places, such as PTC and jerk, it requires greater regulation, based on best industry practices in the rest of the developed world. But in most other areas, the rule should as far as possible be that everything that’s legal in Europe or Japan is legal in the US.

I’ll repeat my exhortation in my post on Mica’s privatization plan: please contact the relevant Congressional representatives and let them know that any real reform must include extensive FRA reform. Organization and electronics should come before concrete, and such deregulation of rolling stock could jive well with the conservative mood in Congress that Mica is channeling. And if it does not, then never mind – the Democrats could seize FRA reform, too, as a good-government issue. It’s more important than whether future railroads are run publicly or privately.

Mica Introduces NEC Privatization Bill

Yesterday, House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster proposed a bill to privatize Northeast Corridor operations. This will be done more like European rather than Japanese privatization: Amtrak will not be privatized directly, but instead the Amtrak-owned trackage and rolling stock in the Northeast will be transferred to a separate government-owned company, which will award a design-build-operate-maintain contract based on competitive bidding and lease the infrastructure to the winning bidder for 99 years.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman replied, “This is broader than the northeast at this point. This is the Privatize Passenger Rail for America Act. The overall impact is this takes Amtrak apart, from an infrastructure standpoint, and replaces it with a government entity.”

The bill can be read here, with summary in plain English here. It does not include any regulatory component, and at this stage appears to leave the FRA in place. It also explicitly states that only the Amtrak-owned portions of the NEC will be transferred to the new government authority; if the private bidder wishes to use any infrastructure owned by Metro-North or the MBTA, the federal government will not help. With both of these hurdles still in place, the bill demands that private bidders meet the following requirements:

1. All current commuter rail services on NEC continued at current levels
2. All current freight rail services on NEC continued at current levels
3. 2 hours or less express high-speed rail service between Washington, DC and New York, and 2.5 hours or less between New York and Boston
4. Double the number of intercity trains on the NEC (both high-speed and Northeast Regional)
5. Complete the entire proposed project within 10 years

It is not clarified what the first two points mean. For example, one way to permit higher speeds in MBTA and Metro-North’s territories is to speed up the commuter trains, buying higher-performance trains and running them with more schedule discipline. Although by passenger standards this means the commuter rail service will have higher levels, from the perspective of the agencies this involves conceding turf and changing operating practices. In addition, increasing superelevation requires setting a minimum speed or running vehicles at cant excess (negative cant deficiency); while this is not a technical problem for commuter trains, traditional regulations are against it even outside the US, and it is a problem for freight trains. Speeding up freight trains is a solution, but could increase their operating costs, especially if they remain diesel-powered; this may or may not satisfy the second point in the bill.

In the absence of FRA reform, it would be difficult and expensive to achieve significant improvements; together with commuter rail agency turf, it bears some responsibility to the $117 billion cost of Amtrak’s Next-Generation High-Speed Rail plan, which has drawn criticism from many good transit activists.

In the presence of FRA reform and a rule requiring the commuter railroads to give access if required, the standards set in the bill are not very ambitious. The advertised timetable calls for an average speed of 180 km/h between New York and Washington, at the lower end of high-speed rail, and 145 km/h between New York and Boston, at the upper end of upgraded legacy rail. Existing high-acceleration or high-cant deficiency trains could achieve this on legacy tracks, with some upgrades. With small curve modifications (including an increase in superelevation, which could complicate matters for freight trains) an off-the-shelf Pendolino could run at 160-200 km/h even on the curvy Shore Line in Connecticut; south of New York, few curves would limit speeds to less than 200 km/h, and those are either relatively easy to fix or located near urban stations where speed would be low anyway.

Another issue with the bill is that it seems to want to maximize private spending in addition to minimizing public spending. It directs the Secretary of Transportation (who currently opposes privatization) to choose the expression of interest that,

(A) indicates that the project will successfully meet or exceed the performance standards.
(B) incorporates the greatest amount of private sector financing.
(C) incorporates the least amount of Federal support.
(D) is based on a public-private partnership structure that closely aligns with the structure selected by the Secretary.

In other words, there are no points awarded for exceeding the standards; however, there are points awarded for spending more money than necessary, as long as it’s all in the private sector. This despite the fact that at the speeds of the express trains running on the Sanyo Shinkansen (currently the fastest in Japan) and the TGV from Paris to Marseille, average speed would be about 220-230 km/h, for a total travel time of about 1:35-1:40 on both the New York-Boston and New York-Washington segments.

The glossy PDF that Mica and Shuster use to argue for the importance of privatization, noting increases in ridership in Britain and Japan, leaves out similar increases that came in Europe after the introduction of better regulations or more modern rolling stock. For example, the German rail reforms in the 1990s and the introduction of high-speed ICE trains helped raise ICE ridership from 6 million in 1991 to 36 million in 1999. France has seen large increases in TGV ridership and intercity ridership in general from the 1980s onward.

Despite this, good transit activists should not dismiss Mica’s effort the way they should dismiss openly dishonest anti-transit politicians, such as Governor Rick Scott. Achieving improvements in ten years is much better than Amtrak’s competing unambitious Master Plan. I believe the bill is reformable, and have already called Rep. Mica’s office and urge everyone else to do the same, demanding regulatory reform in addition to or instead of privatization.

Update: as Bruce McF notes in comments both here and on CAHSR Blog, 99 years is normal for a land concession but extraordinarily long for a transport concession. Under European-style privatization there’s a new auction once every few years, I think 10 at most.

The Problem is the FRA, not Amtrak

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) has finally come out explicitly in favor of privatizing the Northeast Corridor and letting private consortia bid for high-speed rail construction. Mica’s rationale is that Amtrak is an inefficient government provider, and its proposal for spending $117 billion over 30 years to build high-speed rail in the Northeast is deficient.

Not mentioned anywhere in the article is the FRA, which is the real obstacle to modern rail operations. Mica has to my knowledge said nothing about the FRA, which is too bad, since it could feed into the Republican narrative of bad government and the need for privatization and deregulation.

Under present FRA regulations, not much more than NEC service levels can be done: rolling stock would have to meet guidelines developed for the steam era, curve speeds would be limited, and the signaling would not provide enough capacity for adequate service levels on shared track. This is independent of the incompetence of every FRA-compliant railroad; in fact part of the incompetence is manifested in unwillingness to try to get waivers, even though Caltrain, a small operator, applied for a partial waiver and got it.

On the other hand, under modern regulations, even Amtrak could provide somewhat better results, and an Amtrak that Mica and the Obama administration pressured to reform could provide much better results. Although such reforms would include less staffing per amount of service provided, ridership could increase so much that total employment would increase, making this at least in principle fathomable by the bureaucrats. If top management wants to make it happen, it will happen.

In contrast, no reform of the FRA is possible short of a complete overhaul. The appropriate passenger rail regulation in the US is that everything that’s legal in Japan or Europe is legal in the US, and the only local task should be a skeletal staff reconciling European and Japanese rules where necessary. A piecemeal approach leads to partial and suboptimal reforms, requiring additional testing of already extensively used trains. For example, in Europe, tilting trains can have up to 315 270-300 (corrected, see dejv’s comment below) mm of cant deficiency, but the FRA won’t permit more than 229 (9″).

JNR’s problems in the 1980s involved overstaffing and operation of marginal lines; these are the things privatization could fix. This is not true of bad regulations, which remain no matter what. Private vendors could lobby for a fix, but they have other interests in mind than maximum efficiency – for example, making life harder for competitors – and besides, what’s the point of hoping for private lobbyists to do a task that as chair of the relevant committee you can do yourself? At the end, a government that’s too incompetent to do things by itself is probably too incompetent to be trusted to ensure the private sector will provide better service rather than looting the taxpayer.