NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Federal Railroad Administration Is Hindering American Transit

June 14, 2013

Interest in passenger rail around the United States has increased in recent years. With its ability to bypass congested freeways and crawling city streets, new passenger rail lines on existing rights-of-way is one way to offer mass transit in metropolitan areas. Yet even if the physical infrastructure is largely in place, the high cost and low performance of trains made to suit American regulations has stifled innovation in this sector and needlessly increased costs, say David Edmondson and Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

If passenger trains are ever to attract ridership and become a viable part of the country's transportation mix again, it is vital that operators have access to the best practices and the best, most cost effective trains available.

  • Yet presently, American passenger railways are forbidden from purchasing trains in the most cost-effective manner possible.
  • The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has strict crash safety regulations for passenger railcars that trains in Europe (where passenger rail is well established and remarkably safe) do not have to meet.
  • In order for railcars compatible with European regulations to meet FRA rules, they need to add significant bulk and weight, thus adding to both their manufacturing and operating costs.

A direct regulation-to-regulation comparison is impossible, given the different safety philosophies of the International Union of Railways (UIC), to which European rules conform, and the FRA.

  • Despite the cost imposed by the FRA on America's passenger train systems, research into crashworthiness rules by the agency shows that they are less safe than European-style crash energy management technology.
  • A heavier train takes longer to decelerate, which makes crashes more likely to occur.
  • A reform of the rules, then, will be of exceptional importance not just for the sake of transportation authorities but also for the sake of passengers who will be involved in a crash.

The FRA has imposed a heavy burden on American passenger railroads. By mandating crashworthiness requirements fundamentally opposed to crashworthiness standards that have proven effective in Europe for years, the FRA has raised a large trade barrier between the European Union and the United States passenger railway markets. The argument that these rules are necessary to ensure passenger safety has been shown by the FRA itself to be invalid.

Source: David Edmondson and Marc Scribner, "Reducing Passenger Train Procurement Costs," Competitive Enterprise Institute, June 5, 2013.


Browse more articles on Government Issues