FRA Blows it Again on Car Safety
For decades, FRA safety rules for railroad passenger cars have unnecessarily raised the cost of U.S. equipment. By specifying buffer strength requirements that differ substantially from those in Europe, it has ruled out much European equipment out of the U.S. market and forced expensive changes on that sold here. The U.S. is a very small market for rail passenger vehicles, and when small markets have unique requirements, per-unit costs go through the roof. The more expensive rail equipment is, the less we can buy and the fewer passenger trains, light rail cars and streetcars we can ride.
An article in the May issue of Trains magazine, “Crash Course in Passenger Safety,” by Steven M. Sweeney, indicates the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is about to perpetuate its mistakes through another generation of rail vehicles. The article quotes FRA’s acting Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety and Chief Safety Officer, Robert Lauby, as saying of forthcoming FRA requirements, call it “European Standards – – plus . . . we’re taking [European] work and trying to improve it.”
That is exactly what we cannot afford to do. As soon as we “improve” on European standards, we again make most European equipment illegal in the U.S. market. Once more, European manufacturers will have to re-design their products to sell them here, and manufacture very small batches for U.S. rail operations. The cost of each passenger car, light rail vehicle or streetcar will go through the roof. That means some otherwise viable projects won’t get built, or won’t have enough equipment to meet passenger loads and provide frequent service.
Here we run into a classic problem with government regulation: the FRA safety folks will pay no price for their bad decision. What is it to them if equipment prices go up unnecessarily? The price difference doesn’t come out of their budget. If some projects don’t get built, that doesn’t hurt them. Their answer is the answer of bureaucrats everywhere: “It’s not my job, sir.”
Because the American passenger rail equipment market is so small, we are beggars. Beggars can’t be choosers. If we want affordable prices, we have to buy standard designs that are built in large numbers for other, larger markets. This isn’t wheel-rail interface science. It could not be more obvious.
Let me suggest Mr. Lauby “correct the record” and say, “What I meant to say was that the FRA will adopt European standards. No plus, just straight. What is safe enough for Swedes and Germans and Brits is safe enough for Americans too. And we can afford to buy more, because avoiding unique requirements will keep the cost down.”
Mr. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation