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Federal Rail Regulations - What to Do?

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If you follow rail transit at all, you are probably familiar with the terms EMU - Electrical Multiple Unit, and DMU - Diesel Multiple Unit. Although they have been around for ages, they seem to be the new wave of railroading. Instead of having a locomotive pulling multiple passenger cars, the cars themselves have motors and can run themselves. This is essentially what a metro vehicle is. In Europe and most of the rest of the world, they have become quite common, because they allow transit authorities to run lighter, more efficient trains, that can economically serve smaller numbers of passengers, at a lower cost. It basically puts railroads in the realm of possibilities for many areas. For instance, your common commuter train consists of a locomotive and four or five double deck coaches. That is a very expensive consist to purchase and to run. From a fuel economy standpoint, it's quite wasteful, and because you need so many passengers, you can't make many trips or you can only serve the most popular stops. DMUs and EMUs fix that to an extent. They are not unheard of over here - for instance San Diego runs them, as does New Jersey on their River Line. These are much smaller, more approaching a metro-sized operation. You only need one or two cars - and being self propelled they are good to go. But by and large, few places operate them.

The reason for this is the FRA - the Federal Railroad Administration. The FRA is in charge of developing regulations to say what is and is not allowed to run on tracks in the US. The current FRA regulations are very stringent. The regulations that are most important here are the crashworthiness regulations. The FRA approach to this is that all passenger rail vehicles must be able to withstand terrific impact without the slightest bit of deformation. It would be equivalent of being able to drive your car at 75mph into a brick wall and have your bumper absorb all the damage. Needless to say, these regulations pretty well prohibit almost any DMU or EMU for ever achieving certification. This has mainly to do with the fact that US railroads are dominated by freight railroads running long, heavy, slow, and mostly technically clumsy trains with very poor signaling.

Many cities propose starting smaller commuter rail and transit operations using DMUs. Most of these never see the light of day, as the costs of getting these vehicles made is prohibitive. While there are companies that are willing to try, they are requiring a sizable order first, as the costs of developing such a beast will be high. And you cannot buy models used in other parts of the world, as they will not meet the regulations. There is one company that does build such a train, called the Colorado Railcar, but that is both unproven and it seems to be getting some pretty bad feedback regarding it's power and build quality.

So my question is - what can we do to fix this situation. As we speak, the FRA is actually trying to nearly double the strength requirements, making passenger rail nearly impossible. Unless you separate completely transit rail and freight rail, they will not let you run light weight trains. But this is in effect crippling transit. Do we simply give up those regulations? Is there another solution? Is there a way we can shift some burden onto the freight companies?

P.S. this is a link in the most basic English I could find regarding the FRA regulations. Mind you this is a bit biased, is a bit old, and doesn't get too technical. But it gives you an overview. How the FRA is regulating passenger rail out of business http://www.ebbc.org/rail/fra.html

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Unfortunately its the rail ROW that is the most expensive part of these projects and lacking any most of the local transit agencies are left to deal with the freight companies for access to these commuter rail lines. They are often not very agreeable to working with the transit agencies unless it means big bucks for them and/or significant taxpayer paid upgrades to their lines which they have neglected for decades. As a result, most transit agencies take the easy way out and propose commuter rail lines using older Amtrak style locomotives pulling carriages.

It's my opinion also the FRA has been setup to discourage rail projects in this country as not to compete against the highway and airline interests. (including auto & tire manufacturers and the oil industry) Hence it is very difficult to get federal funding approved for "any" rail project in this country. Part of the problem is that we need to, as a society, change this attitude towards rail building and it's not clear there is real political support to do so.

Finally I also believe that it is possible to forgo these regulations if FRA funding is not used to build a system but the problem does need to be addressed. I don't think it will happen until there is a wholesale change in the thinking of politicians (national) from supporting business interests over the people to a more populist government.

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The FRA is in charge of developing regulations to say what is and is not allowed to run on tracks in the US. The current FRA regulations are very stringent. The regulations that are most important here are the crashworthiness regulations. The FRA approach to this is that all passenger rail vehicles must be able to withstand terrific impact without the slightest bit of deformation. It would be equivalent of being able to drive your car at 75mph into a brick wall and have your bumper absorb all the damage.

So my question is - what can we do to fix this situation. As we speak, the FRA is actually trying to nearly double the strength requirements, making passenger rail nearly impossible. Unless you separate completely transit rail and freight rail, they will not let you run light weight trains. But this is in effect crippling transit. Do we simply give up those regulations? Is there another solution? Is there a way we can shift some burden onto the freight companies?

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But where are you going to find situations through most areas where freight companies are willing to run only during off hours, and where are you expecting to find those communities willing to put up with all that traffic during the middle of the night?

I do agree that our heavy freight trains are really too big to mix with smaller passenger trains. So part of the solution may be finding ways to separate that traffic - i.e. different tracks, or in perhaps making those freight trains not so heavy. Right now the FRA seems to kowtow to freight interests instead of finding a balance. But I also question in some ways the insistence of huge heavy trains - there comes a point where the added weight indeed becomes as much a liability as a safety. Like the old cars we used to drive - sure they were tanks, but they didn't absorb impacts and their added weight only added to the force of the resultant crash. Our more modern, lighter cars may not survive the crash as well themselves, but they protect passengers much better. And, they are a lot less likely to get into an accident (the lighter weight for one making it easier to maneuver and stop quickly), plus they don't carry as much force when they do impact.

Of course, another part of the discussion is why these human errors can so quickly make a problem. Perhaps we need to do a lot more in our signaling and train control systems.

What is the alternative? Give up on rail and continue to choke to death on mega highways and car fumes?

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..... Right now the FRA seems to kowtow to freight interests instead of finding a balance. .....

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But where are you going to find situations through most areas where freight companies are willing to run only during off hours, and where are you expecting to find those communities willing to put up with all that traffic during the middle of the night?

Of course, another part of the discussion is why these human errors can so quickly make a problem. Perhaps we need to do a lot more in our signaling and train control systems.

What is the alternative? Give up on rail and continue to choke to death on mega highways and car fumes?

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The FRA basically has no legal authority on the freight railroads in regards to telling them what they can do with their ROWs, nor does it set transit policy in this country. The freight companies own ROWs that go back to agreements written more than a century ago and they were set in the time when it was considered OK to give them pretty much whatever they wanted.

The real problem is congress and the administration which only gives lip service to passenger rail service in this country.

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Metro transit authorities must reach an agreement with the RR's and it can be and is done......

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Indeed. Note this isn't the FRA. Beyond Amtrak and as you mention, the FRA has little influence over passenger rail service in this country except that it is the specified conduit for local metro agencies to apply for federal funding for their local rail projects. The current process, by design, is so difficult that most requests submitted to it are rejected.

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