With federal rules in place, there’s more hope the US can built high speed rail systems like the Eurostar system connecting France and the UK.
Advocating for high speed rail in the US is a brutal business, continually raising and dashing one’s hopes. Six years ago, President Obama dedicated some $8 billion in stimulus funds to high speed rail projects. Then the governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin spurned the cash. California took the money, only to see its plan to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles hamstrung by bureaucracy, crippling land use issues, and the Golden State’s vicious brand of NIMBYism.
Today, it’s back to good news: The Federal Railroad Administration is releasing new draft regulations that could make it a lot easier to build the speedier transport option right here in the US of A. They lay out clear safety standards for the trains, the product of 10 years of back-and-forth with industry.
Yes, these projects will still face capacious bureaucratic rigmarole and construction will take years. But if the Federal Railroad Administration can finalize the rules by next year, as it expects, the age of the true American high-speed system is nigh. Well, nigh-er.
The New Word
Despite years of work on a new generation of railroad, this will be the first time the US has rules governing trains that roll as fast as 220 miles an hour. Current federal equipment safety regulations only deal with those traveling below 150 mph—think the Amtrak trains in the Northeast, or Metrolink in Southern California. The new rules stop at 220 mph because rolling any faster brings up serious issues: steel wheels get finicky, efficiency drops, and aerodynamic noise starts to really annoy the neighbors.
Faster trains demand their own rules because they are built around a novel balance of attributes: They must be light enough to run efficiently at high speeds, sturdy enough to keep passengers safe in a crash, and, for the sake of convenience in congested areas like cities, compatible with infrastructure built for slower systems.
On the crashworthiness front, the draft regs touch on engineering arcana like emergency systems, brakes, and windows (those used on slower trains would create a ton of drag and noise, inside and out).
(There’s still a federal process to approve much faster trains, like the maglevs blasting past 300 mph in Shanghai, Japan, and South Korea. It would just take a while, and a ton of paperwork—if you can get the money and land rights in order.)
Here, regulation is more boon than hurdle. “These rules create clarity in the market and reduce risk by describing the requirements in detail,” says Armin Kick, who oversees business development for Siemens rolling stock. Before, faster trains had to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process to get each element of their design approved. It’s easier to plan when everyone knows the rules.
But of course, this is government we’re talking about: There is more bureaucracy before these regulations are finalized. The railroad regulators will go through an open comment period, where industry, consumer advocates and general train nerds will submit comments. By early 2017, it should finalize these rules.
The proposed standards are particularly industry-friendly because they borrow from international standards. It shouldn’t surprise you that experienced rail engineers are mostly overseas, working for folks like Siemens, Nippon Sharyo, and Alstom, in places where they can actually, you know, build railroads. Federal rules say heavy infrastructure must be built stateside, but the whole enterprise gets a jump start by borrowing from foreign smarties.
All good stuff for high-speed rail, at least theoretically. But actually getting one of these things built might take even longer than writing the draft regulations. America has built a reputation for flirting with high speed rail, says Grady Cothen, a former Federal Railroad Administration safety official who now works as a transportation consultant. “We go through various periods during which it appears there’s going to be sufficient public capital [to build it], or that there’s going to be sufficient interest on the part of the private sector to get things done,” he says.
So far, that enthusiasm has yielded incremental gains, like the Northeast’s “high speed” Acela service that can only travel at its maximum 150 mph in certain sections of track. (Just this summer, Vice President Joe Biden announced a $2.4 billion loan to the Amtrak, so the service can purchase new high-speed trains by 2018.) Private systems are also in the works in Florida and Texas. But while rail chugs along in Europe and Asia, American high-speed hasn’t found its moment.
Who knows how a Donald Trump administration will feel about high speed rail—he hasn’t mentioned the transit tech once. But it could, theoretically, fit into his grand, empire-building infrastructure plans. At least the federal rules will be in place.