FRA To Allow European HSR Trains On US Tracks By 2015
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.