By Stephen J. Smith, October 31, 2013
For decades, the Federal Railroad Administration had effectively
banned modern European trains from American mainline rail networks.
European and Asian manufacturers have been slimming down their rolling
stock for years to improve performance — energy efficiency, braking and
acceleration, even track and train maintenance — while U.S. transit
agencies were stuck with bulked-up versions of sleek European cars,
weighted down and otherwise modified to meet FRA regulations.
The Acela, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, was perhaps the most notorious victim of the old rules. David Gunn once called it
a “high-velocity bank vault” for its bulky design, and many attributed
its maintenance woes to its untested design, customized to meet U.S.
safety regulations. But every commuter and intercity train has to comply
with the rules, and most suffer, to one degree or another, from high costs and poor performance.
But not for much longer. Beginning in 2015, regulators and manufacturers expect the FRA
to allow modern European designs on tracks throughout the country,
running side by side with heavy freight at all times of day. There will
be no special signaling requirements for trains purchased under the new
rules, although a separate requirement for more advancing anti-collision
signaling, called positive train control, is set to kick in around the
Crash safety reform has been slowly building at the FRA
for more than a decade, and until now modern European designs were only
available to agencies that could endure an onerous waiver process, and
only if they could keep other trains off the tracks during service
hours. Transit agencies could apply to the FRA
for an exemption, but they had to submit detailed engineering analyses
and could not run freight or so-called “non-compliant passenger trains” —
that is, lightweight European and Asian models, more like subway and
light rail cars than bulky intercity equipment — at the same time.
Railroads in Europe and Asia are not subject to conditions like these.
“It’ll take a while to get the [new] regulations in place,” said
Robert Lauby, associate administrator for railroad safety and chief
safety officer at the FRA. The new rules have
already been drafted and now await approval from various federal
agencies, followed by a period of public review. Many in the industry
don’t expect significant revisions to what the FRA’s safety committee has already drafted, and Lauby suggested that the new rules should clear the final hurdles sometime in 2015.
The new rules have flown somewhat under the radar, with even experts
specializing in commingled freight and passenger operation doubting how
complete the reform will be. “I’m not shocked [to hear of the new
rules],” said one university researcher, “but I don’t totally believe
that you would see it by 2015.”
Alois Starlinger, head of structural analysis, testing and
certification at Swiss rail car manufacturer Stadler, was more
optimistic. The new rules, he said, would allow agencies to purchase
equipment that’s nearly off the shelf, with only small modifications.
(Starlinger was deeply involved with the engineering task force that
wrote the new rules.)
Stadler will likely have a first-mover advantage under the new
rules, as the company has worked out what slight differences will remain
between the new American standards and European ones. It has already
sold rail cars to a number of systems under the current waiver process,
including to the Denton County Transportation Authority’s A-train,
outside Dallas. Additionally, Stadler hopes to sell trains under the new
rules, which wouldn’t require a waiver, to another upcoming rail system
in the Metroplex — the Cotton Belt Rail Line, which will provide
service between Dallas’ northeastern suburbs and Southwest Fort Worth,
via the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
The rule change is the result of a confluence of factors. The FRA
has edged toward reform since at least the early 2000s with its waiver
process, and some have suggested that the Obama administration’s push
for high-speed rail — true high-speed service, not the “higher-speed”
Acela variant — helped move things along.
Even the researcher skeptical of the depth of the new changes noted a generational shift in attitudes at the FRA.
“The administration has changed a great deal,” she said. “Some of the
people who were diehards opposed to [reform] have retired, and we’re
certainly seeing a new generation.”
“The will of the FRA, and especially Bob
Lauby, to allow for alternative compliance has been a great
development,” Starlinger said. “Before that, all foreign designs were
completely blocked. But we’ve gained a lot of experience with this type
of safe operation in Europe over the last 30 years.”
“The old requirements — the conservative FRA
approach — go back to the 1920s,” he said. “It’s a very old code. We
think it’s time to introduce something more sophisticated.”