COMPETITIVE ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE
By David Edmondson*
Project Director: Marc Scribner**
Interest in passenger rail around the United States has increased in recent years. With their ability to bypass congested freeways and crawling city streets, new passenger rail lines on existing rights-of-way is one way to offer mass transit in metropolitan areas. Yet even if the physical infrastructure is largely in place, the high cost and low performance of trains made to suit American regulations has stifled innovation in this sector and needlessly increased costs.
If passenger trains are ever to attract ridership and become a viable part of the country’s transportation mix again, it is vital that operators have access to the best practices and the best, most cost effective trains available. Yet presently, American passenger railways are forbidden from purchasing trains in the most cost-effective manner possible. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has strict crash safety regulations for passenger railcars which trains in Europe—where passenger rail is well established and remarkably safe—do not have to meet. In order for railcars compatible with European regulations to meet FRA rules, they need to add significant bulk and weight, thus adding to both their manufacturing and operating costs.
The objective of crash safety is to ensure that passengers and train staff are not injured or killed in a crash. Passengers can be injured a number of ways: by being crushed as the train car collapses, in fire, or from trauma due to hitting an object inside the train like a table or seat. The specifications designed to prevent the car from collapsing and crushing people address a railcar’s crashworthiness and occupied volume integrity.
A direct regulation-to-regulation comparison is impossible, given the different safety philosophies of the International Union of Railways (UIC), to which European rules conform, and the FRA. Despite the cost imposed by the FRA on America’s passenger train systems, research into crashworthiness rules by the agency shows that they are less safe than European- style crash energy management technology. A heavier train takes longer to decelerate, which makes crashes more likely to occur. A reform of the rules, then, will be of importance not just for the sake of transportation authorities but also for the sake of passengers who will be involved in a crash.
Maintaining Passenger Car Integrity. The FRA requires the undercarriage of a train to withstand 800,000 lbs. of force without permanent deformation, the idea being that a train should be able to rigidly resist the impact of another train. This aim is regulated by the FRA under 49 CFR 238.203 and is often said to deal with buff strength.
Buff strength requirements as we know them date back to 1912. The U.S. Postal Service had been using baggage cars as mail cars. To save time, employees would sort mail as the train ran its route. Unfortunately, the baggage cars offered little protection in a crash, and employees were often injured or killed. In 1912, the Railway Mail Service Specification was published to address this problem. It required the undercarriage of postal cars to be able to resist 400,000 lbs. of force without permanent damage, later increased to 800,000 lbs. at the recommendation of the Association of American Railroads in 1939 and made standard in 1945.
In 1956, the specification became law for new multiple-unit trains. Unlike traditional trains, where unpowered cars are pulled by a single locomotive, multiple units have their power supply distributed between each of the vehicles. Then in 1999, the Federal Railroad Administration required all intercity passenger and commuter rail equipment to meet this specification.
While simple, the specification’s straightforwardness gave it legitimacy. It is easy to define and easy to see if a railcar is compliant. If the car has permanent damage after a crash—like stress fractures or crumpling—it does not pass the safety measure. Since the introduction of this buff strength requirement, other crashworthiness regulations have been built with buff strength in mind. Corner posts, for example, which protect the car against crashes into the front or rear wall of a rail car, are only as strong as the undercarriage to which they are attached.
European regulators take the opposite tack of the FRA. Rather than rigidly resist a crash, Europeans design trains to gracefully deform in a controlled manner under the UIC design standard EN 15227. Under this approach, known as crash-energy management (CEM), crumple zones are designed to absorb the energy of a crash. These zones are typically in spaces where people probably would not be during a crash, such as electrical closets and passageways between railcars.
This does not mean buff strength rules are absent from European regulations, only that they are not as strict as those imposed by the FRA. To allow the crumple zones to crush before the occupied areas, the occupied volume needs to be strong enough to withstand some of the crash energy. Buff strength in European trains is 337,200 lbs. of force.
About The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI)
“The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty. Our mission is to promote both freedom and fairness by making good policy good politics. We make the uncompromising case for economic freedom because we believe it is essential for entrepreneurship, innovation, and prosperity to flourish.”
** Marc Scribner is a Fellow in Land-use and Transportation Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.