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 Europeanstyle 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 exceptional importance not just for the sake of transportation authorities but also for the sake of passengers who will be involved in a crash.