Rail fans, rejoice. Federal rules no longer bar US passenger rail systems from using modern, lightweight train cars. This week, the Federal Railroad Administration finalized new safety rules that bring American standards more in line with those used in Europe — changes that will save American commuter rail operators money and passengers time. Under the new rules, old, heavy trains can now be replaced with lighter, sleeker, more-modern models.
Meeting the Federal Railroad Administration’s onerous and antiquated safety rules has been a big problem for passenger rail operators that use the Federal Railway System (commuter rail and inter-city rail, like Amtrak). The US doesn’t have a very large domestic train car market, so importing train cars from Europe and Asia is often the cheapest and lowest-risk option.
But FRA rules had required significant design changes. Most important, American train cars had to be built to withstand 800,000 pounds of frontal impact. Former Amtrak CEO David Gunn complained US trains had to be designed like “high-velocity bank vaults.” Rather than just bulk up, European and Asian trains instead are designed to absorb impacts and avoid collisions in the first place. And they have better safety records.
In the past, transit agencies and Amtrak had to order trains from European or Asian suppliers and then modify the cars to meet American standards — which often caused big problems. Philadelphia’s SEPTA system, for example, had to return 120 brand new rail cars thanks to an engineering defect in 2016.
The new rules will help minimize those problems.