FRA To Allow European HSR Trains On US Tracks By 2015

Oct 31st, 2013 | Posted by

One of the most frustrating federal regulations regarding passenger rail has been the Federal Railroad Administration rules requiring American passenger trains using tracks shared by freight trains to be built substantially heavier than most other passenger trains around the world. This makes it impossible for American passenger rail operators to buy off-the-shelf trainsets from Europe or other places to use in the US. The result is much greater costs, slower trains, and more operational problems.

After several hints that the FRA might be willing to end this regulation, we learn today that the rule will be phased out by 2015:

Beginning in 2015, regulators and manufacturers expect the FRA to allow modern European designs on tracks throughout the country, running side by side with heavy freight at all times of day. There will be no special signaling requirements for trains purchased under the new rules, although a separate requirement for more advancing anti-collision signaling, called positive train control, is set to kick in around the same time.

Crash safety reform has been slowly building at the FRA for more than a decade, and until now modern European designs were only available to agencies that could endure an onerous waiver process, and only if they could keep other trains off the tracks during service hours. Transit agencies could apply to the FRA for an exemption, but they had to submit detailed engineering analyses and could not run freight or so-called “non-compliant passenger trains” — that is, lightweight European and Asian models, more like subway and light rail cars than bulky intercity equipment — at the same time. Railroads in Europe and Asia are not subject to conditions like these.

“It’ll take a while to get the [new] regulations in place,” said Robert Lauby, associate administrator for railroad safety and chief safety officer at the FRA. The new rules have already been drafted and now await approval from various federal agencies, followed by a period of public review. Many in the industry don’t expect significant revisions to what the FRA’s safety committee has already drafted, and Lauby suggested that the new rules should clear the final hurdles sometime in 2015.

Not sure what else to add to this aside from “oh thank god.” Caltrain has already obtained an FRA waiver, but this will make it easier for other rail operators to get off-the-shelf trains. It should also help reduce a regulatory hurdle for the California HSR system, which will be sharing tracks under the blended plan for the first few years of its life.

This is also a testament to the strong support for passenger rail we have seen from the Obama Administration and the Department of Transportation. I doubt this would be happening now if not for the support from the President and from former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Current Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx is clearly moving ahead with these plans and that’s great news as well.

  1. Shane Phillips
    Oct 31st, 2013 at 21:03

    This is extremely good news.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    …except for the trade deficit….

    VBobier Reply:

    Change US Law that allows corporations tax breaks on employing foreigners for any reason, that means VOTE all the Repubs/baggers out of office on Tuesday NOvember 4th, 2014!!!

    That goes double for Repubs like Cook, McKeon, Issa and Denham…

    joe Reply:

    I expect they’ll build here.

    Euro and Asian auto-makers established facilities here for the cost savings. They’ll do the same with trains. It’s too big a market to simply export and be competitive with manufacturers who do shoft production here.

    The question is where? IL, CA ?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Euro and Asian auto-makers established facilities here for the import quotas the US threatened Japan with


    joe Reply:

    Today, they move factories here because we pay shit wages for manufacturing. There’s no quota driving japan to setup auto facilities here.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Japan has a voluntary export quota, which it imposed in the 1970s when the US threatened to impose a quota unless Japan restrained its exports voluntarily.

    Joe Reply:

    1970, I was alive then. You could live a great life working a blue collar job.

    It’s 2013 and we pay crap wages – they are here to keep labor costs low. It’s even openly written in business mags. We are a low wage country.

    joe Reply:
    The U.S. economic recovery has been built on the shoulders of autoworkers such as Werner, who left a $9 an hour job at a nursing home in November to earn $16.78 an hour at GM, and David Ramirez, 39, who earns $18.41 an hour installing mounting brackets for transmissions at the same plant. In August 2011, he escaped an $8 an hour job making doughnuts at Wal-Mart.

    joe Reply:

    The Japanese automakers have been careful not to make specific promises to the market about how much they will expand North American manufacturing capacity, according to Manning & Napier Senior Research Analyst Walter Stuckow, but their intention to continue doing so is clear, if for no other reason than that the profit margins are better for vehicles made in the U.S. and Mexico than those made in Japan.
    The goal for Japanese carmakers is to produce 100 percent of cars meant for the U.S. market in North America, a task which will be accomplished in the short term “through the use of additional shifts,” according to Gutierrez. The biggest expansion will likely be in Mexico, where labor is cheapest; however, U.S. manufacturing is expected to grow faster than Canadian, where labor costs are the highest.

    Reedman Reply:

    The most popular vehicle in the US is the pickup truck. The US has a 25% import duty on trucks that goes back to the “chicken tax” dispute during the LBJ administration. That duty is the #1 reason that foreign vehicle manufacturers opened facilities in the US (note that under NAFTA, trucks built in Canada and Mexico can enter the US duty free).

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    and the three most popular models of pickup truck are made by Ford, GM and Chrysler. If the foreign manufacturers build trucks here because of the import duties how does that explain them building cars here?

    Reedman Reply:

    Foreign manufacturers opened car plants in the US because of another government legal intervention: the two fleet rule. CAFE requirements have to be met twice, once on a manufacturers US production, and once more on it’s imports. This rule was put in under UAW pressure in the ’70s in order to prevent the US from becoming the home of only low volume (large, low fuel economy) car production, and all the high volume (small, high fuel economy) vehicles becoming imports. It didn’t work out well, because, for example, when Volkswagen opened their initial US manufacturing plant, the two fleet rule forced them to buy parts from outside the US so that the cars built would count against their import fleet. NAFTA added more complexity to the determination of whether a vehicle counted as “domestic” or “import” or “car” or “truck” (hint: the PT Cruiser was considered a “truck” because Chrysler used a truck chassis for it). The new 2011 CAFE rules are even more convoluted, based on a standard that varies with the “footprint” of the vehicle, as well as the manufacturers being allowed to trade credits amongst their fleets and amongst themselves.

    Joe Reply:

    Try to publish this in Bloomberg.

    We pay 18.00 an hour in these new auto jobs. That’s about 3 over the livable minimum wage for a fast food worker.

    Isn’t any thing to do with quotas or regulations, we are cheap labor.

    Joe Reply:

    The article discusses cars. 100% car production.

    Obviously it’s all because of truck tariffs. Foreign manufacturers make soooo many of the too.

    Jos Callinet Reply:

    Joe, what is “shoft production”?

    Joe Reply:

    I intended:
    shift production

    Had I used my iphone it would have been fix to “shaft”

    BruceMcF Reply:

    We import petroleum too.

    VBobier Reply:

    And the US exports jobs thanks to Congress who makes tax credits/corporate welfare bills that become laws once signed by a President.

    wdobner Reply:

    If domestic firms can offer a product that is built to the standards used by the rest of the world and can do so at a competitive price then it’s likely they’ll be able to overcome the truly terrible rolling stock purchase planning on the part of US transit systems by selling their products abroad.

  2. Joey
    Nov 1st, 2013 at 01:39

    This is very good news indeed, but a couple of things still remain to be seen:

    1) How deep will this ruling go? I am skeptical that it will be “you can run UIC trains with no strings attached”

    2) How much integration can we really have between passenger and freight lines in the US? US freight thrives on the high volume low cost model, which means low speeds, little attention to punctuality, heavy axel loads which chew up the track, low superelevation, and double stacks. Passenger rail, by contrast, thrives on punctuality, predictable schedules, and high speeds enabled by tight track geometry tolerances and high superelevation. The types of pantographs you need for actual high speed trains are also incompatible with wires high enough for double stack freights.

    This isn’t to say that this won’t be a huge benefit, particularly on lines with medium to high passenger volumes and relatively low freight volumes (NEC, LOSSAN, …). But I doubt we’ll see wholesale integration of passenger services on freight mainlines.

    Andre L. Reply:

    I think you hit the spot on #2. These new set of rules might be positive for LOSSAN and similar corridors. They will address and overhaul crash prevention framework.

    However, this won’t change rail congestion, traffic paradigms and track setup problems. Freight railroads who own the tracks (with few exceptions) won’t change their patterns just because passenger trains became cheaper.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yes, but most of the important passenger rail corridors in the US are passenger-primary:

    1. LOSSAN
    2. Most of Metrolink
    3. The NEC plus New Haven-Springfield
    4. The entire LIRR, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, MBTA, and SEPTA
    5. Empire South
    6. Most conceivable additions to the Northeastern regional rail network
    7. A large fraction if not almost all of Metra
    8. Keystone
    9. Caltrain

    Joey Reply:

    Doesn’t Metra share tracks with some rather busy freight mainlines, particularly the UP-West and BNSF lines?

    Fake Irishman Reply:

    Yes, but CREATE is helping this out some.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yes, hence “a large fraction if not most of all.” Bear in mind, the BNSF Line has very high passenger train volume as well as high freight train volume – it’s not like the freight-primary lines the Amtrak LD trains run on.

    Nathanael Reply:

    In addition to Alon’s list, other passenger-primary corridors include TRE in Dallas-Ft. Worth, SunRail in Orlando, Tri-Rail in Miami, Railrunner in New Mexico, the South Shore line from Chicago to South Bend, most of the Detroit-Chicago route… and the Charlotte-Greensboro-Raleigh corridor, which is owned outright by the state of North Carolina, even though the Charlotte-Greensboro section is a major freight corridor.

    The problems with dealing with the Class I freight railroads mean that state and local governments have been routinely buying the tracks whenever they have the chance. This is actually good for the freight railroads as they don’t have to pay property taxes any more. In Maine and Vermont the tracks have been left in the ownership of freight-hauling shortlines, but for the shortlines which own those tracks, passenger revenue is probably just as valuable as freight revenue.

    Regarding Metra, Metra owns the Metra Electric line (& all branches), the MD-W and MD-NW lines, the Rock Island Line (& all branches), and most of the Southwest Service route (CREATE would make it all of the route).

    The North Central Service operates on a CN-owned line. The UP-N, UP-W, UP-NW and BNSF lines are owned by the respective freight haulers but they all have more passenger traffic than freight traffic, and have had for a long time. Of these, UP-NW and UP-N don’t carry that much freight because there are better freight routes for UP.

    But anyway, BNSF is exceptionally good at dispatching passenger trains for a freight hauler, and UP, despite being quite hostile to new passenger service, has been pretty good at dealing with what’s already there. NS has treated passenger trains pretty decently since North Carolina gained massive leverage over it when the Charlotte-Greensboro route reverted to state ownership. Right now the real “problem railroad” is CSX, which mainly affects New York (which will probably eventually have to get federal legislation to buy out the Empire Corridor West) and Viriginia (which let the DC-Richmond route slip out of its hands in the 1990s).

    Nathanael Reply:

    Other passenger-primary corridors include FrontRunner in Salt Lake City, the new lines under construction in Denver, the SMART line being built north of the San Francisco Bay,…

    There’s a relatively short list of passenger train operators in the US, other than Amtrak, who run most of the way on freight-controlled tracks. There’s Sound Transit in Seattle (BNSF), Northstar in Minneapolis (BNSF), MARC Train in Maryland (CSX), VRE in Virginia (CSX & NS), and ACE in California (UP).

    Metrolink in LA and Metra in Chicago (as noted before) each have significant sections of track owned by freight railroads, but the rest of the operators have only really small sections owned by freight railroads. Even most of Amtrak’s corridor routes are controlled by passenger operators.

    In a slow, piecemeal way we’re ending up building a separate passenger-primary rail network and leaving the freight railroads on their own.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    To me, “passenger-primary” is a description of the use of the line, not the ownership. For example, Empire South is fully passenger-primary, even the parts that are still owned by CSX. Likewise, the entire Worcester Line is passenger-primary and has been for a long time, even though the outer parts were owned by CSX until recently. On the Western freight-primary lines, oversize freight means the freight railroads demand low platforms. On the completely passenger-dominant Hudson Line, high platforms mean no oversize freight. On the Worcester Line, they have retractable platforms to serve both kinds of users’ needs.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    CSX still technically owns Empire South but Amtrak has leased it from Schenectady to Poughkeepsie where it becomes Metro North. From an operations standpoint Amtrak might as well own it. From a capital improvements standpoint too.

    Nathanael Reply:

    And technically Penn Central, now American Premier Underwriters, owns the Metro-North portion of the Hudson line (Empire South). This doesn’t seem to matter. Practically Metro-North might as well own it (it’s actually a very long lease).

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Grand Central Terminal too if I remember correctly. Until 2047, again if I remember correctly, when there’s a option for Metro North, or it’s successor to buy.
    The foamers love to go on and on about how the Hudson line south of Poughkeepsie will never ever never be faster than it already is. Whole lists of reasons why but it boils down to Metro North isn’t going to spend money on it for Amtrak. Well… Metro North is a division of the MTA and the MTA is the state of New York. And if the state of New York decides that running the trains faster on the Hudson Line is worth spending money on it will get spent.

    Domayv Reply:

    How would double stack cars go once high platforms start to become present across the west?

    Joey Reply:

    Double stacks aren’t any wider than single stacks. In fact, Plate H (double stack) is narrower than Place C or Plate F (single).

    Domayv Reply:

    thanks. So there will be no problem of double stacks running across high-level platforms.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Unfortunately the core of LOSSAN, Hobart to Fullerton, is BNSF. Also most of the north end is UP of course.

    Joey Reply:

    Hobart to Fullerton will have dedicated tracks for LOSSAN once that section of HSR gets built. Though honestly, it seems like a full redesign of the corridor would be a better move, given very high volumes of both passenger traffic and freight. Perhaps 4 tracks for all passenger trains (excluding Amtrak LD) and two for freight?

    And as for the north section, it’s true that UP owns it and that UP is probably not going to cooperate on modernizing it. Then the best case scenario is probably to just cut off the north section into its own service (timed, cross platform transfer at LAUS) so that the southern section can actually be modernized.

  3. Jon
    Nov 1st, 2013 at 10:23

    The Fresno – Bakersfield recommended alignment has been posted:

    Corcoran Bypass, Allensworth Bypass, Bakersfield Hybrid.
    No Wasco-Shafter bypass.

    Kings/Tulare Regional Station – East of Hanford on State Route 198.
    Downtown Bakersfield Station at Truxtun and Union Avenue/SR 204.

    Cost: $7.2B (middle of range)

    jimsf Reply:


    jimsf Reply:

    I will certainly look forward to that increasing my property values as the new home I am buying is ten minutes from the proposed east hanford station location!

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