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.