It’s not getting a lot of coverage, but the news about FRA safety rule changes that would allow a variety of “off-the-shelf” European trains to finally be allowed in the US could very easily top the 2009 ARRA grants as the most significant contribution to the viability and competitiveness of rail during the Obama era.* The greatest virtue of these trains, as I understand it, is their comparatively lighter weight, which would have considerable impact on speed, efficiency, and maintenance costs. This could produce a short-term hit for American manufacturers, but in the long run it might turn out to be good for them, as presently their investment in meeting the FRA’s outdated and unique standards has made it difficult for them to sell their products anywhere else.
There are a lot of reasons rail infrastructure projects are costly and inefficient compared to most of the rest of the world, and there’s no one change that can fix that. But this certainly helps, and is a very good thing. There’s still going to be limitations due to the high degree of shared passenger/freight track, but there are quite a few places where upgrades could happen relatively soon. More at CAHSRBLOG and STB; both of which have comment sections that are generally well worth reading. Alon Levy hasn’t commented on this news, but, in case he still reads this blog I’ll note here that I hope he will.
*It’s unclear how much credit should actually go to the administration. On the one hand, the FRA has apparently been slowly working on crash safety reform for over a decade. On the other, Robert Cruikshank says he doubts this happens without Lahood’s leadership and support.