FRA Safety Regs Add Costs, Not Safety, to American Rail

The Federal Railroad Administration is an increasingly frequent target for Streetsblog Network members. Writers including Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations and the mysterious “Drunk Engineer” who pens Systemic Failure have called out FRA safety regulations as irrational and out-of-date, adding unnecessary costs to rail operations and preventing the modernization of Amtrak and commuter rail systems.

Today, Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism boils down the criticism to its essence: The FRA is “bad for America.” Using the above video to illustrate his point, Smith writes that not only do FRA safety regulations stand in the way of expanding American rail, they also don’t even make train travel safer:

As the twentieth century has progressed, vehicles have gotten safer as they’ve gotten lighter. The key is to use materials intelligently, absorbing impacts strategically with things like crumble zones and the basic energy management system in this video, to prevent things like telescoping. Building vehicles out of lighter, more crash-absorbant materials costs much less than when you’re deriving all your safety from sheer bulk, as with the so-called “conventional equipment” in the video (which in another country might be called “antique equipment”). Lighter designs also improve fuel efficiency and do less damage to roads and railroad tracks, further reducing costs and greenhouse emissions. Oh yeah, and obviously it’s safer.

Your car is built this way, as are trains used all around the world. Except, that is, in the United States. The FRA, America’s main line passenger rail (that is, Amtrak and commuter railroads) safety regulator, has yet to recognize that there are ways to protect passengers from crashes besides entombing them in obese railcars. And so we’re stuck with these expensive, dangerous, polluting 1950′s-era behemoths.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Urbanophile reviews Gary Hustwit’s much-anticipated new film, “Urbanized.” Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space wonders why DC has yet to develop a strategic plan, while smaller metros forge ahead. And I Bike TO reports that Toronto’s cycling community is concerned about a new ordinance that could ban bike parking anywhere except on bike racks.