Amtrak to Seek FRA Approval for Standard HSR Trainsets
In a move driven by the desire for new equipment on the Acela, but with implications for high speed rail in California, Amtrak is going to ask the Federal Railroad Administration to allow it to purchase and use standard HSR trainsets rather than the artificially heavy ones that current FRA crash regulations require:
Amtrak will recommend new U.S. rail- safety regulations to allow it to replace its Acela trains in the Northeast U.S. with lighter, faster equipment, Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman said.
U.S. crashworthiness standards force Amtrak to use trains that have locomotives on both ends and are slower and heavier than bullet trains used in Europe and Asia, Boardman said in an interview. Those standards reflect that U.S. passenger trains often share tracks with freight railroads rather than operating on their own lines.
Existing standards apply to trains traveling as much as 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour). Writing new rules that relax railcar structural-strength requirements for faster trains “would allow for less use of fuel, quicker acceleration, a different performance profile,” Boardman, 64, said. “What we’re really looking for is a performance specification here.”
For those who aren’t familiar with the issue, this is a longstanding point of contention between passenger rail advocates and the FRA. Current FRA rules require American passenger trains to be heavier and slower than their European counterparts because unlike those European trains, many American passenger trains share tracks with freight trains. Those freight trains are themselves heavier than most passenger trains, so the FRA has required passenger trains to be heavier in case of a crash. In other words, the FRA’s solution to passenger/freight conflicts is to armor up a passenger train like a tank.
This rule forced Amtrak to custom order the designs for the Acela trainsets, rather than buy something off the shelf that was already a proven success. That added to the Acela’s costs and the new trainsets were not as reliable as their overseas counterparts. The FRA allowed Amtrak Cascades to buy and operate off the shelf Talgo trains, but requires a non-powered control unit car be added to the end of each train that has a concrete weight in order to help meet the FRA requirements.
While the FRA has defended this rule as a safety measure, most observers argue that the only way for passenger and freight trains to safely share tracks is by using positive train control. After all, Metrolink trains met the FRA rules and yet the Chatsworth disaster still occurred. Positive train control could have prevented that crash, which occurred when a Metrolink train ran a red signal. But the FRA weight requirements didn’t prevent the loss of 25 lives.
The Acela waiver has precedent – in 2010 Caltrain finally won its own FRA waiver to allow it to operate off-the-shelf trainsets as part of its electrification program. Caltrain is installing a positive train control system known as CBOSS, one reason why the FRA was willing to grant the waiver.
Given the plan to operate California high speed rail in phases, with a mixture of dedicated and shared track, a waiver will be needed for trainsets there too. If Amtrak is successful, it makes it more likely that the California HSR project will also be able to get the waiver it will need for its initial operational phases. Let’s hope the FRA makes the right decision and grants the waiver.