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Rail Law Alert – FRA Publishes Final Rule Allowing Trains to Travel 220 mph

FRA Updates Passenger Train Car Safety Standards

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published a Final Rule (83 Fed. Reg. 59,182 (Nov. 21, 2018)) that seeks to modernize the minimum safety standards for passenger train equipment operating in the United States. The new rule modifies Part 238 by (1) establishing performance-based standards for a new category of Tier III high-speed passenger trainsets; (2) introducing alternative performance-based design standards for Tier I passenger trainsets; and (3) allowing FRA to authorize Tier II passenger trainsets to travel at speeds up to 160 mph.

The new Tier III safety standards are based on predominant international standards, which the FRA has modified to accommodate interoperability with existing U.S. rail infrastructure and shared-track operations. The Tier III safety standards are performance-based, which allow manufacturers to utilize alternative technologies and design processes, including crash energy management, to demonstrate compliance with minimum safety performance criteria. According to the Regulatory Impact Analysis accompanying the Final Rule, a $50 million trainset built to current European or Japanese standards would require only approximately $310,000 in modifications to comply with the Tier III standards. Tier III trainsets may be authorized to operate at speeds of up to 220 mph over exclusive use right-of-way without grade crossings, and up to 125 mph in other shared-use environments or environments where there are grade crossings.

The Final Rule also adopts alternative performance-based standards for Tier I passenger trainsets (i.e., those authorized to operate at speeds up to 125 mph). These standards do not require modification to existing Tier I trainsets or their design, but rather, like the Tier III standards, allow manufacturers to employ alternative technologies to satisfy performance-based standards. Prior to the rule, the FRA would have been required to issue a waiver of the Tier I passenger trainset standards if a manufacturer wished to vary from FRA’s prescriptive vehicle design standards; however, under the Final Rule, railroads may demonstrate compliance with the alternative standards by submitting test data and report demonstrating compliance with FRA’s standards for carbody crashworthiness and occupant protection. The manufacturer’s documents will be deemed acceptable unless the FRA stays action on the manufacturer’s submittal or imposes additional conditions.

The Final Rule also allows the FRA to authorize Tier II passenger trainsets to travel at speeds up to 160 mph. Although the FRA had increased the maximum operating speed on Class 8 track to 160 mph in 2013, it had not yet certified passenger equipment to operate at that speed. Service providers currently authorized to operate at up to 150 mph on Class 8 track must obtain approval from the FRA before commencing operations at the increased speed.

Please contact Chuck Spitulnik or Allison Fultz if you have any questions about this rule.

Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell publishes Rail Law Alerts to announce late-breaking developments in legislation, regulation, and policy for our clients and colleagues. Nothing in our Alerts is intended as legal advice, and readers are reminded to contact legal counsel for legal advice on the matters that appear in our Alerts.