Stephen J. Smith writing for Next City:

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.

Hallelujah and praise to the God of steel wheels. If you’re not reading Smith’s blog, you really ought to. Otherwise I’ll be forced to re-post everything he writes.

More at CAHSR.

58 Replies to “European Trains Will Be Legal in the US by 2015”

  1. These are lighter weight, which is good, but are they capable of speeds faster than 100 mph on existing US railbeds and curves?

    1. The European trainsets are designed to be used with the European signalling and train control systems. Unfortunately, a modern train control signal system is still being developed here in North America. Historically, the FRA has adopted the philosophy that accidents are going to happen and the best approach to passenger safety is to build iron tank railcars that can take the punishment. The European system aims to prevent accidents rather than accept them as inevitable. Obviously, as we recently saw in Spain, the Euro system isn’t foolproof, but it is way ahead of the North American system.

      Another thing to consider: what will the private freight railroads require before they will allow the lighter and faster trainsets on their properties? Just because the FRA approves the lighter trains doesn’t mean that the private freight companies won’t have concerns.

      1. For starters this will allow for lighter, faster, cheaper, more efficient trains on the tracks owned by passenger operators. This would include all of the MBTA in Boston, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, Keystone, Springfield MA, and Albany NY routes, Connecticut and New York’s Metro-North, New York’s LIRR, Philaelphia’s SEPTA, Trinity Railway Express in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Music City Star in Nashville, Tri-Rail in Miami, SunRail in Orlando, RailRunner in New Mexico, Capital MetroRail in Austin, WES in Portland OR, A-Train in Denton, Coaster in San Diego, South Shore Line from Chicago to South Bend, and all the new lines in Denver, at a minimum.

        It should include NJ Transit as well, although there’s one annoying freight-owned section a couple of miles long (if the freight railroad causes trouble, it would be worth buying it or bypassing it). There’s also only a tiny segment of freight-owned track on FrontRunner in Salt Lake City at the far end of one line. Other entirely passenger-controlled routes include five of the Metra routes in Chicago, some of the Metrolink routes in LA, Caltrain from San Jose north.

        Further, if only BNSF is reasonable among the Class Is, this would allow for lightweight rolling stock on most of the Metrolink routes, another Metra route, Sound Transit, Minneapolis’s Northstar, Amtrak Cascades from Portland northwards, the Pacific Surfliner, Amtrak’s entire Southwest Chief route, and the Quincy trains in Illinois, as well.

        In short, the potential is really large, even if some of the freight companies cause trouble.

      2. Just adopt ERTMS-2, like the Chinese did (CTCS-3 and ERTMS-2 are effectively the same system).

        Americans and NIH!

      3. “Just adopt ERTMS-2, like the Chinese did (CTCS-3 and ERTMS-2 are effectively the same system).

        Americans and NIH!”

        I know, right? The Swiss debugged ERTMS, just use it.

  2. Thank heavens. Maybe ST can get in on the game? Maybe run DMUs on Sounder North, so we’re not paying exorbitant sums of money to run trainsets almost as tall as they are long?

    More positively, in the long term, I wonder if this could make a serious off-peak Sounder service viable to Lakewood and Tacoma? Paying to add track on the mainline might be cheaper than pissing away money building Link through the boonies south of Federal Way. It would be a more useful service, too: Tacoma and Lakewood are far enough away that speed starts to matter more than frequency. Fast DMUs every 30 minutes into King Street, with a good feeder bus service, would be a mobility revolution for South King.

    Heck, maybe if our transportation leaders start getting more ideas from Europe, Puget Sound may avoid the fate of the Bay Area, which is extending gold-plated BART lines into low-density suburbs at vast expense while Caltrain staggers from one funding crisis to the next. What a concept.

    1. It would certainly change the equation if a substantially cheaper Sounder became a possibility. A 30-minute Sounder would beat the pants off the 30-minute 150 and the 578, and it would give 15-minute 150 a run for its money. (25 minutes faster, but 25 minute wait cancels that out, but then Sounder is much more pleasant, so Sounder wins).

      It reverses for the 594 because Sounder is slightly slower and doesn’t reach downtown Tacoma, but ST could make a fiat decision to replace the 594 anyway, and that would incidentally boost Tacoma Link’s ridership too. And if Tacoma Link gets extended to MLK/19th like they’re talking about, that would get rail at least halfway to the 6th Avenue cultural district, where a more-frequent bus could literally do the “last mile”.

      Two other effects of 30-minute Sounder: it would give central South King the “frequent” expresses they’ve been clamoring for, and it’s right in the middle between the west side (Pacific Hwy) and the east side (Renton, Covington, Maple Valley). Link is on the west side, so it can’t as effectively serve the east side. The three main reasons for Link’s location are the airport, the fact that Pac Hwy has decent ridership and continuous TOD potential, and it’s wide enough to support Link. The airport segment is already built, and highline CC will soon come along for the ride. That leaves only Federal Way out. More on that later, but first…

      A 30-minute Sounder would give a good reason for east-west RapidRide at all South King Sounder stations. Tukwila is in the works. Kent we have discussed before, and theoretically it could go to Bailo’s dream house in Black Diamond just to shut him up. :) Auburn would just need a 181 upgrade. So now back to Federal Way…

      We could make a deal with Federal Way on its Link segment. Give us a master plan with TOD all along Pac Hwy and a walkable environment from the transit center to the Commons, and then you’ll get your final Link segment. Or perhaps you’d prefer to take the (then-existing) RapidRide to Sounder instead? I’m not sure which would please Federal Wayans more.

      For Fife, sorry Charlie, no Link, but would you like RapidRide? For Sumner and Puyallup, those areas are such anti-transit basket cases that I’m not even going to suggest bus routes; they can do that themselves. Then we come to Sounder North. It’s just too far from population centers and has such a constrained cachement area, that more frequent Sounder is still off the cards. Everett still has the possibility of frequent buses to Lynnwood TC, or a Link extension.

      For our Eastside friends, are there any tracks besides the 405 corridor that theoretically could have commuter rail where people want to go? Is there a track from Renton to Issaquah? Anything else that could be useful?

      1. This would include: truncating the 150 at Southecenter to become a local route. (Or going to Rainier Beach if that is still warranted.) And redevelopment of Federal Way Commons to a walkable village. I didn’t just mean the path to the Commons but also Commons itself.

      2. What about a RapidRide line from Des Moines to either Lake Meridian or the Covington Fred Meyer, with a timed transfer to a less-frequent route to Black Diamond? That would put all the large, small, and exurban cities on-line to Sounder, and we could be done with them.

        One issue is the Timberlane segment. People in Covington center and Timberlane won’t want to lose bus service, but people in Maple Valley would rather go straight on KK Road and bypass Timberlane. Extending RapidRide to Covington center and Timberlane is probably too much, so another idea would be a transfer station at Fred Meyer, where RapidRide, a Timberlane shuttle, and the eastern route could meet.

      3. “Or perhaps you’d prefer to take the (then-existing) RapidRide to Sounder instead? I’m not sure which would please Federal Wayans more.”

        I think the time sink of going through Kent to get to downtown, by whatever means – even if they all ignored the RapidRide and drove directly to Sounder from their front door – would make the idea a non-starter. I would expect Federal-Wayans to argue for more frequent 577 service instead. Plus Link for the occasional trip to the airport.

      4. There used to be tracks from Renton to Issaquah.
        Renton to Woodinville , back to Redmond, then along the east side of lake Sammamish to Issaquah, not the best route ;)

        Also, the Ceder River Trail in Renton used to be Rail, you could follow that old railbed (and others) to North Bend, and Snoqualime. I know that there was a connector from Snoqualime to Issaquah, I am not sure if it would still be viable ;)

        But as far as existing tracks… No luck there :(

      5. “For our Eastside friends, are there any tracks besides the 405 corridor that theoretically could have commuter rail where people want to go?”

        Last time that was looked at, purely in the context of ”where people want to go”, was the I-405 Corridor Program study, where Sound Transit came up with a preliminary (to use in the C/B analysis), estimate of $4.5 Billion dollars.

        It’s already been determined that the freeway is where people want to go.

      6. For Federal Way, going through Kent isn’t that long because of Sounder’s route and grade separation. It’s 33 minutes from Auburn station to Seattle, vs 37-42 minutes on the 577. So with an express shuttle (not RapidRide as I suggested earlier) it would be the same or just a little longer.

        405 doesn’t go to Issaquah for instance, and there are people in Issaquah who want to go places. Obviously a Seattle – Renton – Woodinvile – Redmond – Issaquah route would not work as a through route, (although it would win the award for touching the most Eastside soil).

      7. The math basically looks like this. Auburn->Seattle via Sounder is about 5 minutes faster than Federal Way->Seattle via express bus. Google driving directions estimates about a 10 minute drive from Federal Way TC to Auburn Station (which is actually much closer to Federal Way than Kent Station). Best case, you’re 5 minutes slower than the 577 option. But that’s assuming you instantaneously hop off the bus, on the train and go which, in practice, is not realistic. Add another 5-10 minute wait time in Federal Way (any schedule which times things closer than that would not be reliable, nor is it reasonable to hold up everyone from Tacoma to wait for a late connecting bus from Federal Way), plus another few minutes to go up and back down again in Seattle to take Link from King St. Station to the actual downtown destination.

        When it’s all added up, you’re looking at a 50% longer commute than current 577 offers. If the change would provide increased frequency to compensate for the longer commute, that might be acceptable (in the case of the 510/512 restructuring, the tradeoff was clearly worth it). But in this case, you’re going from 30-minute headways to 30-minute headways – longer travel times, but no frequency improvement, whatsoever.

      8. I thought the main cost of Sounder was in the lease for tracks to BNSF.

        Why would a different trainset change that cost?

      9. Lighter trains use less fuel. ST could also purchase more of them. Perhaps they could have higher passenger capacity? Track-time leases are one expense but they’re not the only one.

    2. As a frequent visitor to the Bay Areas East Bay the eBart extension using DMUs will be a welcome extension to Brentwood. Traffic on that Highway 4 corridor is a joke.

    3. The biggest issue is I don’t think the tracks between Seattle and Tacoma really have the capacity to add all that many more trains. Shifting some freight to the UP tracks and modern signaling will help some but not enough for every 30 minute service between Seattle and Tacoma.
      Then of course there is the question of what sort of pound of flesh BNSF would ask ST for if they were willing to make room for all-day commuter rail.

  3. Interesting that the system from my hometown, Denton County Transit Authority’s A-Train, gets a mention. DCTA received the first waiver under the current rules that allows it to buy trains allowed under the proposed new rules. Until the waiver was granted, DCTA ran commuter rail-style cars (leased from neighboring a commuter rail system, the Trinity Railway Express) that looked like Sounder rail cars. Though such an exemption wouldn’t help Sounder, the fact that some agency somewhere is doing it in an urban area is important because it proves the concept. DCTA trains run through built-up areas and along a freeway, just like other agencies currently forced to use less-efficient stock.

    Changes like this have a big impact. DCTA rail use skyrocketed right after the new trains were rolled out, up 42%. I personally know several people (and more who post on Facebook) who started riding the train regularly into Dallas because it is a much-improved ride over the old trains. Since the new trains cost so much less to run, DCTA did away with the mid-day “train shuttles” where they ran buses between the rail stops because the old trains cost so much that they weren’t financially effective. Now the entire route is all-train-all-day and many more people use it to connect to DART light rail.

    As the article mentioned, another proposed commuter rail route, the Cotton Belt Line, will benefit. One of the major complaints from opponents of the Cotton Belt Line was the noise generated by TRE trains and that Cotton Belt would have to use similar trainsets. That noise-oriented opposition has disappeared with the roll-out of DCTA’s new trains which are noticeably quieter and, to most, more visually pleasing.

    DCTA press release:

    Joint press release with pictures:

    DCTA January 2013 ridership report, right after new train introduction:

    1. Thanks for the information about those numbers. It will clearly be advisable for practically every agency to switch to lightweight stock as soon as reasonable. (Some agencies, like SunRail, unfortunately just bought brand new rolling stock this year and will probably therefore need to stick with it for some time.)

      It may be less possible for Amtrak long-distance service, whose trains often run on multiple freight railroads, to switch over quickly as *all* the railroads involved will have to sign off on the new lighter trains.

      But the commuter agencies can mostly just do it (as I noted above).

    1. I’m not sure if you’re being sardonic or straightforward. If you look at the post directly above yours (namely, mine), you’ll see that a transit agency in the United States–and in Texas, no less, somewhat known for its wide open, not-at-all-dense population areas–is using the exact type of trains allowed under the proposed rules. Yes, they’re doing it on a waiver and, yes, it’s on a set of tracks with no other traffic, but they’re in service right now (well, it’s 1:12PM CDT on a Saturday and train 5975 just finished a southbound run, so not exactly “right now”) and people like them and are paying to ride them.

    2. All over Europe, there’s a whole understory of regional rail lines like the one in Skone- in addition to a continental network of heavier duty high-speed trains.

      In Sweden, these national trains are called the X2000’s.

      The ones I mentioned would be about the equivalent of Sounder- except much faster and more frequent.

      Another feature of European ground transit is absolute easy of transfer from between systems- including between regional and long-distance trains, and between trains and buses.

      In Gothenburg, western Sweden up near Norway, there’s a huge and architecturally beautiful bus station which is functionally in the same building as the train station where the X2000’s come in- as well as several fast regional lines.

      Like much in advanced countries, the excellent rail systems in Europe really are on the order of the highway system of the United States:

      Make anything your main preoccupation for sixty years, and it finally becomes no really big deal. Now that our whole huge country is so full of private cars nothing can move, we’ve good examples overseas to copy.

      The same, incidentally, as the finally absolute necessity for Europe to follow our example of forming itself into a very large, politically united country. Painful as cold wet weather to people over forty. For the generations who’ll shortly take charge- Non Magnum Res.


      1. @Mark
        re European nation state: maybe it’s difficult for outsiders to understand, but they don’t even speak the same language!
        However, what will hopefully happen is freight rail integration and signaling integration. But don’t count on fast progress, ETCS implementation having been put on the back burner.

  4. When are Washington’s tracks getting positive train control? I thought BNSF was balking because it was an expense that wouldn’t benefit its freight service (which runs slower anyway). Or is PTC going to be required across the board in 2015?

      1. The FRA cannot postpone the deadline. The freight RRs are trying to get it postponed in Congress. This is probably impossible, as Congress is (a) gridlocked, (b) has more important things to do, (c) doesn’t really want to become known for “ALLOWING ANOTHER CHATSWORTH”, as I’m sure the headlines will scream.

  5. Sounds like this is great for the country as a whole, but how does it translate locally? Sound Transit has invested in the current rolling stock, so with that in mind is it reasonable to expect them to make a quick transition after 2015? I’m not pushing back, just asking for the practical implications for our region.

    1. No quick transition, but it does raise possibilities for gradual expansion, and for next fleet replacement cycle. It would also benefit Cascades, as postitive train control is one of the things preventing the 79 mph speed limit from being lifted. I’m not sure if the Cascades Talgos are under a waiver or if there’s a lighter version of them we could use. It also raises possibilities in the Seattle – Spokane corridors (the Empire Builder route or the Yakima/Pasco route).

      ST3 could take a step toward this, if South King and Pierce are willing to shift resources from Link expansion to Sounder. ST already has milestones for almost-hourly midday trains at some point in the future; I assume BNSF has agreed to those. ST3 could implement 50% or 100% of that if BNSF doesn’t require more preparation time. That would set the stage for longer-term discussions on how much additional capacity BNSF has, whether there’s room for dedicated passenger tracks, and how much those tracks would cost. Cascades could also share those tracks, so that could give a reason for some state funding. ST4 could implement part of that, and then we could see the way toward half-hourly Caltrain II.

      1. For Seattle->Spokane, I think the future is better bus service, not rail service. Given that virtually the entire crossing of the Cascades is single track – and would be prohibitively expensive to make double track (build a second tunnel under Stevens Pass ???? $$$$), it is not possible for any train service through the corridor to run significantly more frequently than the once a day the Empire Builder runs today.

        Time-wise, I-90 is a fast route. I once traveled Seattle->Spokane on an Amtrak bus arranged at the last minute due to severe train delays. In spite of leaving downtown Seattle in the middle of afternoon rush hour, door-to-door travel time from the Seattle Amtrak Station to the Spokane Amtrak Station was about 4 1/2 hours. Regular (as in every couple hours or so) non-stop (or very limited-stop) service by BoltBus between these cities would be a game changer.

      2. It would be interesting to know how much the cost of upgrading Stampede Pass for bi-directional operation (signalization, etc.), as compared to the money being spent on the current work being done at Snoqualmie Pass, along with the operational budget for snow-removal.

        From WSDOT’s Annual Mega Project Report for I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East:
        “This design will meet the goal of reducing the number of avalanche control-related closures in the winter and will save WSDOT approximately $650,000 per year or nearly $49 million over 75 years, compared to anticipated maintenance and operations costs to maintain fire and life safety systems in the proposed snowshed. The cost of building the bridges is about the same as the cost of a new snowshed – approximately $71 million.”

      3. By the way, I only included the snowshed portion of the project, since avalanche control is probably the biggest chunk of any pass operating budget.

        The rest of the project (budgeted for $443.6 million), is merely a happy road widening project.

      4. There is no way you could build a new tunnel through either Stampede Pass or Stevens Pass for only $443.6 million dollars. And it’s not just the tunnel either. All the mile and miles of track through the Cascades has to be carefully cleared and graded, and, except for a few pieces of siding here and there, is only wide enough for one train. Oh, and the track through eastern Washington is single-track as well. Way cheaper to upgrade per-mile, but it’s still a lot of miles and it does add in. When all is said and done, upgrading any rail corridor between Seattle and Spokane to be double-tracked would probably cost in the tens of billions of dollars minimum. And if you wanted to straighten out the curves enough to allow any kind of trainset to be time-competitive with a bus down I-90, the cost goes up further – perhaps now, close to $100 billion.

        Spending all this money on rail travel between the two cities just doesn’t make sense when we can get nearly all the benefit for far less money by simply running buses down the freeway we already have. In fact, if BoltBus or some other private operator decides to offer such a service one day, maybe we won’t need any taxpayer money at all.

      5. That’s the point of investigating what upgrading Stampede Pass would cost, based on the specific things needed.

        When did the $100 Billion double tracking plan come into play?

      6. asdf: Meh. Tunnel drilling is EASY with TBMs. You could build a second Cascade tunnel pretty easy, and it would be cheap as tunnels go. No stations helps a lot.

        The problem is that there aren’t nearly enough people in Spokane for it to be necessary. The fact is that you could easily run a second daily train on the current line without doubling the tunnel (you would have to double some of the other sections).

        However, Sweden would go ahead and drill a tunnel for a situation like this — they’ve done several. As a point of reference.

      7. Nathanael,
        Stampede pass operates as ‘dark territory’, and BNSF is now using it eastbound only. Loaded coal, grain, and other trains run through on the Fallbridge Subdivision (the Columbia River Gorge), and empties are run back via Stampede Pass. (and also some through Stevens Pass)

        The costs involved for any immediate upgrade would at least be signalization, and adequate passing sidings for bi-directional running.

        It is a relatively circuitous trip, and when the Empire Builder ran that route, it took the same time to get to Spokane as the Stevens Pass route.

        My point is that the gas tax I pay is going towards that Mega road project. The amount of gas the 30,000 daily users of Snoqualmie pass burn (contributing their portion of the State and Federal gas tax) contributes a pittance to the cost of that project.

        This doesn’t even cover the operational costs of snow removal/avalanche control.

        They receive an unquestioned subsidy.

        While my local government asks me for more money to repair local roads that I use.

      1. Yeah! That will probably be possible — the FRA will demand some retrofits, but probably still cheaper than having the concrete weight.

  6. In Sweden last couple of months, rode several times on streamlined purple electric trains on the rail system of Skane Province. Look to be same caliber as as trains shown above.

    Underneath news broadcasts on overhead TV screens in every aisle, readout shows train speed. On these trains, 165 kph, or just over a hundred miles an hour. Often on single track, through farm country.

    Passengers and train personnel complain about having to wait for track to clear, but I didn’t see much to complain about. I think I saw freight trains on same tracks, but much smaller and shorter than ours.

    Headed east over Stevens Pass week or two back, watching hundreds of cars to my left creeping twenty miles from the pass toward Everett, had serious visions of how few of those trains would have to come by on the nearby tracks to let traffic go the speed limit.

    Can’t believe trains, catenary, and signals wouldn’t be cheaper than widening westbound Highway 2 by a single lane.


    1. Pretty much anything is cheaper than widening a mountain highway by an entire lane. Trains on tracks use narrower rights-of-way than a lane of road.

  7. Thanks for the great news – a step in the right direction.

    After all, if we can have Sounder North done cheaper with lighter kit it might just be a viable service. Plus this lights a fire under American rail engineers & developers to start competing and do better.

    1. Isn’t the bulk of the cost bribing BNSF for the right to use their tracks, rather than operating the trains themselves? If so, North Sounder will never be viable, no matter what train is used. If you propose building a whole new track, where would you put it?

      Finally, if we’re building Link to Lynnwood and beyond, I don’t see why we need any parallel commuter rail service at all. North of downtown, Link is expected to be quite fast.

      1. The bribe has already been paid for the current North Sounder schedule. It doesn’t enter into operating costs.

      2. This is an unusual usage of the word “bribing”, which is more commonly used when payment is made to an individual in a position of power to abuse that power. Sound Transit *purchased* the right to run a number of trains on the relevant tracks from BNSF, in perpetuity. ST could, if it so chose, sell those rights to a third party, such as Amtrak, or even a competing freight company. Unlike physical infrastructure that can only be used for transit purposes, these legal rights of way have substantial resale value, which is likely only going to increase over time. There is no lifespan of these rights of way to divide up over periods of time in a way that would be comparable to the useful life of physical infrastructure.

        If ST ever does consider offloading these rights, it might consider leasing them rather than selling them.

      3. Paying someone for the use of their property is not a bribe. For governments to do otherwise would be tyrannical.

      4. “In addition, the so-called bribe was used at least in part for track capacity expansion”

        Key words ‘capacity expansion’. BNSF can use the money to upgrade any other subdivision to create capacity on the Scenic Sub.

        BNSF has lived up to the agreement with Sound Transit, and runs more special trains than originally agreed upon.

        My personal opinion is the schedule is too tight. It should be spread out more, but then again, I’m not the one doing the negotiating.

    1. Canada already has fewer “built like a tank” rules — hence the “Rennaissance” and “LRC” cars used by VIA Rail.

      However, VIA Rail is unfunded, shrinking, and hasn’t bought any brand new rolling stock since 1984’s LRCs. (The “Rennaissance” cars were used.)

      Canada also has very few lines other than VIA (and the three Amtrak routes which enter Canada) where passenger rail shares track with freight. There’s the massive GO Transit network around Toronto, and this would benefit from lighter cars. There’s the large AMT network around Montreal, which would also benefit. There’s one line in Vancouver (West Coast Express). That’s it.

      All three commuter rail lines in Canada use the “Bombardier bilevel” or “Bombardier multilevel” for nearly every line. (AMT uses a Bombardier high-floor single-level train for its electrified line.) Given the Bombardier boosterism present in Canada, we can assume that if Bombardier starts offering lighter trains — which it will, in order to get the US market — Canada’s agencies will buy them.

      1. Thanks, your point about Bombardier makes a lot of sense…

        …this change by the FRA is going to have quite a ripple effect.

      2. Bombardier certainly offers lighter trains already, since they are a significant player in the European market.

      3. William: yes, but Bombardier’s Euro-model trains are made in the European factories and its US/Canadian model trains are made in the US/Canadian factories. There’s one reason Canada hasn’t ordered the European models… they want to employ Canadian workers.

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