Another Way Government Boosts the Cost of Rail Transit
While consultants, contractors and local politicians are the main sources of unnecessary costs in constructing rail transit, the federal government also does its bit. Perhaps the worst case is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is undoubtedly the most expensive and least useful mandate Washington has ever laid on transit. Millions have been spent on facilities that are seldom or never used.
Another way the federal government boosts the cost of rail transit is the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) buffer strength requirements. These specify such high values for longitudinal compressive strength in commuter rail cars and some other rail transit vehicles that few if any foreign designs can meet them. That prevents us from buying rail cars off the shelf.
Because the United States is a small market for rail passenger equipment, when we cannot buy off the shelf, prices soar. Manufacturers must either design something new or heavily modify a design for a small build. They amortize those design costs over just a few rail cars, raising prices. Manufacturing costs too usually drop as the size of the build increases.
So why does FRA insist on unique buffer strength requirements? Because, as is so often the case with regulatory agencies, it pays no price for unnecessarily raising other people’s costs. If the higher costs mean the country has less rail transit, what is that to the FRA? Expanding rail transit is not its mandate.
There is an easy fix for this problem: Congress should overrule the FRA and abolish current buffer strength requirements. The FRA and allied Safety Nazis will howl, but common sense says that if a rail car is safe enough for Brits, Swedes, Germans, and Frenchmen (maybe even Italians), it is safe enough for Americans. We are not talking about importing cars made out of jute from Bangladesh.
If rail transit is to continue to expand during the coming economic depression, there most be a rigorous effort to comb out all unnecessary construction costs. Ideally, the federal Department of Transportation would undertake such an effort. In the case of FRA buffer strength requirements, it can run the comb through its own hair first.