FRA safety standards could lead to sleeker trains on U.S. passenger railroads

By Chris Spahr
Final implementation of the Rail Safety and Improvement Act of 2008 could pave the way for sleeker trains on American passenger railroads by 2015.  The RSIA mandated that the Federal Railroad Administration implement safety regulations related to hours of service requirements for railroad workers, standards for track inspections, certification of locomotive conductors, and safety at highway-rail grade crossings.  One of the most important safety measures resulting from this act is the requirement for Positive Train Control systems on certain Class I freight railroad main lines and on most intercity passenger or commuter railroad main lines. This will require that approximately 70,000 miles of track and 20,000 locomotives be equipped with PTC technology by 2015.
So how does this all relate to sleeker trains?  With increased safety technology on railroads, FRA is easing outdated standards that require some trains to be built to withstand 1 million pounds of force without deformation. This opens up the market for European and Asian manufacturers who have been slimming down their trains to create energy efficiency, improve braking and acceleration, and reduce wear and tear on trains and associated infrastructure.
FRA traditionally has created safety standards to ensure “collision survival”. However, it is slowly moving in the direction of its European and Asian counterparts to focus on “collision avoidance.”  PTC systems are integrated command, control, communications, and information systems for controlling train movements.  The 2015 deadline to implement PTC on railroads will help to prevent future train collisions like the 2008 Metrolink crash in Los Angeles, where a commuter train collided head-on into a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring 135.
Due to numerous challenges faced by railroads to implement the PTC system, many will likely not meet the 2015 deadline, which may spur Congress to consider extending the deadline to 2020. However, some railroads are on track to meet this deadline, including Southern California’s Metrolink.
Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.