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FRA issues final rule for safe and efficient high-speed passenger rail operations

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The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued a final rule establishing modern, performance-based safety standards for railroad passenger equipment. The rule reinforces FRA’s commitment to safety while representing one of the most significant enhancements to the nation’s passenger rail design standards in a century. The rule paves the way for U.S. high-speed passenger trains to safely travel as fast as 220 miles per hour (mph).

“These new regulations were made possible by a wealth of FRA research, reinforcing our unwavering commitment to safety,” FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory said. “FRA’s safety experts solicited input from industry stakeholders at numerous levels and took those ideas to develop standards supporting a new era in public transportation.”

The final rule defines a new category of high-speed rail operations and makes it possible for high-speed rail to utilize existing infrastructure, saving the expense of building new rail lines. These new ‘Tier III’ passenger trains can operate over this shared track at conventional speeds, and as fast as 220 mph in areas with exclusive rights-of-way and without grade crossings.

The final rule also establishes minimum safety standards for these trains, focusing on core, structural, and critical system design criteria. FRA estimates that the rule will improve safety because of expected improvements made by the railroads to accommodate the operation of high-speed rail equipment in shared rights-of-way.

The final rule will be a deregulatory action under Executive Order (EO) 13771, “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs.” The rule is expected to save more than $475 million in net regulatory costs.

Passenger train manufacturers across the globe have utilized innovative design and testing techniques for years, incorporating features such as crash energy management. Under FRA’s previous passenger equipment regulations, U.S. rail companies have had limited procurement options or have needed to petition FRA for waivers to use these newer technologies.

The final rule continues to define Tier I as trains operating in shared rights-of-way at speeds up to 125 mph, and it also allows state-of-the-art, alternative designs for equipment operating at these conventional speeds. Tier II trains are defined as those traveling between 125-160 mph, an increase from the previous 150 mph limit. This supports a competitive operating environment for U.S. companies seeking to offer travelers more passenger rail options. By enabling the use of advanced equipment-safety technologies, this final rule helps eliminate the need for waivers.

The final rule was developed with the assistance of the Engineering Task Force (ETF), under the auspices of FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC). The ETF membership included FRA technical staff and representatives from railroads, rail labor organizations, manufacturers and others. The ETF evaluated production trends against the U.S. operating environment. The ETF recommended that FRA expand its traditional speed-and-safety rating system to three categories of passenger trains.