Report: the FRA makes trains less safe, more expensive

A new report out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and I suspect you’ll recognize half the byline), says the FRA’s safety regulations, enforced in the name of safety, perversely make us less safe. Rather than use the best practices of Europe or encourage train manufacturers to innovate, the FRA’s rules prescribe antiquated crash management technology from the 1910s. Dangerous and more expensive trains are the result.

To find out why, you’ll need to read the report for yourself. It’s an easy read, just six pages, and it details how SMART, in the West, and Acela, in the East, have been dramatically affected by the FRA’s regulations, though they aren’t the only victims. You can see the stark difference between the two regimes in a crash test video that went into the FRA’s report on its own safety measures. The top train is FRA-compliant, while the bottom is compliant with European regulations from the International Union of Railways (UIC):

The top train experiences something called an “override”, which you’ll find mentioned in the report. It’s what FRA-compliant trains too-often do in a crash. And, on the bottom train, you can even watch how, for a split second during the crash, the oncoming train pauses to absorb the crash energy. That’s UIC crash safety in action.

Something I realized after the report had been written, too, was that the FRA’s rules hurt domestic train manufacturers. FRA-compliant trains are illegal overseas, as they don’t meet UIC standards, just as European trains don’t meet American safety standards. This forces domestic manufacturers to choose between serving the tiny US market or the much larger global market.

Though bashing the FRA is a favored pastime among more technically-minded bloggers, desperately needed regulatory reform seems to have gained little traction where it matters most. Here’s hoping CEI’s white paper can change that.


About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

2 Responses to Report: the FRA makes trains less safe, more expensive

  1. Richard Hall says:

    Thanks for sharing. This is a good article.

  2. Luke says:

    I recently finished reading a book about the history of trains/railways in the U.S. called “The Great Railroad Revolution.” It’s a decently put-together history of railroads in America written by Christian Wolmar, a British historian who has written extensively on railroads in the UK. He covers freight, passenger, and commuter railways. It’s a fascinating read. One of the recurring themes in the book is the counterproductiveness of regulation throughout the rail industry’s history in the U.S. While no one would argue that regulation is not required, nor that railroads in the late 19th century weren’t totally out of control and needed to be reigned in, the fact is that U.S. rail regulations have always been decades behind. They have also been unresponsive to changing conditions, which has placed serious constraints on the industry and has not allowed it to adapt to changing technologies and markets. According to Wolmar, this has been going on for 100 years. Regulating a capital-intensive and rapidly changing industry cannot be easy, but the FRA and ICC have been particularly ham-fisted over the years. At least that’s the claim made by Wolmar, and I thought he made a very compelling case in his book.

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