Lighter Trains, Faster Trains

by Reihan Salam

Stephen Smith of The Next City reports that the Federal Railroad Administration will soon allow modern European train designs on tracks throughout the country. This decision matters more than you might think:

For decades, the Federal Railroad Administration had effectively banned modern European trains from American mainline rail networks. European and Asian manufacturers have been slimming down their rolling stock for years to improve performance — energy efficiency, braking and acceleration, even track and train maintenance — while U.S. transit agencies were stuck with bulked-up versions of sleek European cars, weighted down and otherwise modified to meet FRA regulations.

The Acela, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, was perhaps the most notorious victim of the old rules. David Gunn once called it a “high-velocity bank vault” for its bulky design, and many attributed its maintenance woes to its untested design, customized to meet U.S. safety regulations. But every commuter and intercity train has to comply with the rules, and most suffer, to one degree or another, from high costs and poor performance.

This is a breakthrough that could help passenger rail become somewhat more competitive in the U.S., and it will certainly help reduce travel times and fuel consumption. And as David Edmondson of the Competitive Enterprise Institute observed in June, the old FRA regulations “raised a large trade barrier between the EU and the United States passenger railway markets,” and all but guaranteed that manufactuers that served the U.S. passenger rail market would find themselves unable to export their U.S. products to other countries. So it seems that not all public policy news is bad news this fall.

Elsewhere, Smith breaks down the work rules that were at issue when Bay Area Rapid Transit workers went on strike.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.