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New Federal Railroad Administration Rule Can Help Reduce Passenger Train Costs

Today, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published its long-awaited final rule to modernize passenger railcar crashworthiness standards. When it takes effect on January 22, 2019, the new rule will allow passenger rail agencies to adopt railcars designed with crash energy management (CEM) techniques.

CEM refers to crumple zones designed to absorb the energy of a collision. Until now, U.S. passenger railcars were required to meet “buff strength” crashworthiness standards related to railcar integrity, engineer seat integrity, and anticlimbing mechanisms to prevent telescoping—the deadly phenomenon in which a railcar “climbs” into the railcar in front of it when a crash suddenly halts a train’s forward movement. The assumption is that the railcar should remain rigid from end to end upon impact, as opposed to crumpling at the ends to absorb the crash energy. In the case of anticlimbing and telescoping, railcars with CEM designs will crumple and lock into place in the event of a crash.

Unfortunately, a myopic focus on buff strength and rigidness meant U.S. rail agencies needed to add bulk to their railcars, a problem that was the topic of a 2013 Competitive Enterprise Institute whitepaper urging the reform announced today. This greatly increased trainset procurement costs, but also operating costs as the heavier railcars did more wear-and-tear to infrastructure and required more energy to move.

The FRA’s new rule is very welcome, but it will not automatically reduce railcar costs in the U.S. For these savings to be enjoyed, procuring agencies must educate their engineers about the benefits of using CEM-equipped railcars, as inertia among government engineers due to a lack of experience with alternatives is a widely known driver of out-of-control public works costs. We hope the FRA is able to provide assistance to transit agencies and Amtrak in order for taxpayers and passengers to realize the benefits now permitted under the new rule.