Report: the FRA makes trains less safe, more expensive

Metrolink Train Crash - Chatsworth, CA

by ProComKelly, on Flickr

A new report out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and I suspect you’ll recognize half the byline), says the FRA’s safety regulations, enforced in the name of safety, perversely make us less safe. Rather than use the best practices of Europe or encourage train manufacturers to innovate, the FRA’s rules prescribe antiquated crash management technology from the 1910s. Dangerous and more expensive trains are the result.

To find out the full story, you should read the report for yourself. It’s an easy read, just six pages. You can see the stark difference between the two regimes in a crash test video that went into the FRA’s report on its own safety measures. The top train is FRA-compliant, while the bottom is compliant with European regulations from the International Union of Railways (UIC):

The top train experiences something called an “override”, which you’ll find mentioned in the report. It’s what FRA-compliant trains too-often do in a crash. And, on the bottom train, you can even watch how, for a split second during the crash, the oncoming train pauses as it absorbs the crash energy. That’s UIC crash safety in action.

The FRA requires train cars to be able to withstand 800,000 pounds of pressure without permanently bending or buckling, a measure called buff strength. In a crash, trains are supposed to bounce off each other, with the front cars resisting all the energy unleashed in the crash.

The UIC takes a different approach, adopted by Europe and Australia, called crash energy management. Rather than requiring cars to rigidly resist the crash energy, the UIC requires them to have crumple zones in areas where there likely won’t be passengers: the nose, electrical cabinets, and inter-car passageways. In the FRA’s words, this allows trains to gracefully absorb the crash energy, evenly distributing it throughout the whole train.

The problem is the FRA’s rules don’t work as well as the UIC’s, as the video makes abundantly clear. By requiring cars to rigidly withstand all the energy of the crash, all the energy goes to the front car, which causes the override.

UIC trains attempt to manage the energy by distributing it. Though the front car still takes the brunt of the crash, other cars take much more energy than under the FRA, so the brunt is not nearly as bad. As well, to prevent override, the front crumple zone allows the front of the train to crumple into the shape of whatever it’s running into, like the front of an oncoming train. By doing so, the front train locks onto the other train, preventing override.

These two regimes of crash safety are fundamentally incompatible. Train cars cannot have crumple zones and not be permanently deformed in a crash. It just doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, the fundamental incompatibility means transit agencies that want to run passenger rail on legacy tracks are not allowed to purchase off-the-shelf trains from Europe. Instead, they need to purchase custom-built trains, like SMART, or run locomotive-pulled designs that are inappropriate for high-frequency rapid transit, like Caltrain. This means transit agencies either have to double the cost of their trains or limit the scope of their work.

Something I realized after the report had been written, too, was that the FRA’s rules hurt domestic train manufacturers. FRA-compliant trains are illegal overseas, as they don’t meet UIC standards, just as European trains don’t meet American safety standards. This forces domestic manufacturers to choose between serving the tiny US market or the much larger global market.

Though bashing the FRA is a favored pastime among more technically-minded bloggers, desperately needed regulatory reform seems to have gained little traction where it matters most. Here’s hoping CEI’s white paper can change that.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

7 comments to Report: the FRA makes trains less safe, more expensive

  • […] Edmondson at Network blog Vibrant Bay Area, a co-author of the study, […]

  • I am going to disagree with calling these standards European. Both South Korea and Japan have been active in developing international standards, as has South Africa. I believe that Malaysia has as well. In addition, the International (not European) Union of Railways examines data from every rail accident that has more than two fatalities no matter where in the world it takes place.

  • emdx

    It’s not only the buffing strength; in Europe, there are positive mechanisms to guarantee that trains will not go past closed signals, whereas there are often none of those here.

    • Definitely, though from what I understand positive train control in the US should do the same thing.

      The best path for reform would be twofold: performance measures for traincar safety; and performance measures for individual railroad network safety. That second one means that, say, LIRR could adopt safety measures that have proven effective in other countries.

  • […] FRA regulations make trains both worse and less safe. […]

  • While I agree with the thrust of the article–what would happen were an FRA-compliant train and a UIC-compliant train to collide in a similar crash? Would the UIC-compliant train still survive the wreck, or would the greater bulk and stiffness of the FRA-compliant train overwhelm the crumple-zone capability and deform the passenger cabin?

    The reason I ask is to wonder about the technical prospects of UIC (or similar rules) in the US, given the large installed base of FRA-compliant stock here? PTC comes on line (supposedly) in 2015, which should help; but needing segregated infrastructure to support UIC rules (which we already do in many places today) is probably would not be beneficial. What would benefit passenger transit would be a regime where lighter, more efficient trains passenger trains could safely ply much of the existing rails. Wholesale replacement of FRA with UIC isn’t going to happen.

    • The FRA study answers the question. (PDF-page 42, first paragraph) In short, if a CEM and FRA train collided above a relative speed of 20MPH, the CEM train’s crash safety mechanisms could be overwhelmed, leading to some loss of occupied volume. However, if two FRA trains collided above 20MPH, one would likely override the other, leading to essentially the same outcome.