New regulations from the Federal Railroad Administration could open up exciting new options for passenger rail in the Northwest. These updates have been in the pipeline for some time now and are finally ready for public review.
The first of the new rules creates a new “Tier III” for high-speed passenger rail. Tier I covers speeds up to 125mph (i.e. Amtrak Cascades, Sounder), Tier II goes up to 160mph, and the new Tier III (220mph) relates to true high-speed trains such as we might some day see in California.
The second and more interesting rule change provides an alternative crash safety standard for Tier I (and only Tier I) trains, for tracks that are shared between passenger and freight rail. Streetsblog has a good summary:
The FRA expects the new rules will enable railroads to use trains that are safer, more energy efficient, and cheaper to operate. The rules will allow American passenger train operators to purchase rolling stock designed to European safety standards (but not Japanese standards), without going through an expensive waiver process.
“It was an obstacle for all foreign railway manufacturers to bring any state-of-the-art trains into the country,” said Alois Starlinger, a board member for the Swiss train maker Stadler Rail.
Building trains to unusual U.S. safety standards for the small American passenger rail market made rolling stock purchases needlessly expensive. Opening the door to standardized European train specifications will significantly lower prices.
Running cheaper, lighter Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trains on existing freight rail tracks could open up some more options for passenger rail. As our own Bruce Nourish explained when the regs were first announced:
To get a sense of the economic and environmental cost of America’s overbuilt trains, let’s look at a simple number, the weight of the trains, taking Sounder North as an example. To a first order approximation, the environmental and economic cost of building and operating a vehicle (of a certain type of fuel) is proportional to the amount of metal that goes into it. A three-car Sounder North train weighs about 240 metric tons (50 t carriages, 120 t locomotive), while the Stadler 2/8 weighs 79 metric tons. So, roughly speaking, we could comfortably move Sounder North’s passenger load with a third of the fuel and materials we use today. This would do much to bring down Sounder North’s painfully high cost per boarding; to boot, a DMU train would almost certainly accelerate faster, ride more smoothly, and be quieter to the neighbors. DMUs on this line could be a huge win.
A win indeed. Where else in the Northwest might we see DMUs playing a bigger role? Discuss in the comments.