Notwithstanding high-profile incidents involving fatalities, from Los Angeles's Metrolink in 2008 to New York's Metro-North in late 2013, passenger rail transport remains far safer than most other options, even as expectations and demands for even greater passenger rail safety continue unabated.
Suppliers are confident they can meet—and even beat—those rising expectations. Railway Age talked to one industry representative who outlined safety developments for high speed rail (as well as higher-speed implementation), and to a second evaluating the lower-speed rail options, light rail transit and streetcars, with other (though not exclusively different) safety priorities.
Focusing, and flexing, HSR needs
Last month, defying some doomsayers, Amtrak and the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) issued a long-awaited Request For Proposals for high speed trainsets that will be "essential to meeting Amtrak's critical short-term need to expand the capacity of its current Northeast Corridor high speed service and meeting the long-term operational needs of both Amtrak and the CHSRA." Proposals are due May 17, 2014; a builder is expected to be selected by the end of this year.
Paul LaRouche, Bombardier Transportation director of product planning, assures anyone interested that the new train equipment will be as safe as cutting-edge technology can make it, and dismisses recent rumors dogging both CHSRA and Amtrak HSR programs.
In part that's because LaRouche, along with suppliers colleagues and competitors, transit agencies, and Amtrak, has helped advance specifications developed by the Federal Railroad Administration through the FRA Rail Safety Advisory Committee.
The industry in late 2010 established standards for passenger rail gear designed for speeds up to 125 mph through FRA's Engineering Task Force 1 (ETF1). Standards for the next level, ETF2, initially outlined specifications for mixed service including speeds up to 150 mph, subsequently informally adjusted to 160 mph.
But the Rail Safety Advisory Committee, scheduled to meet again late last month, was to focus on "covering Tier 1 and Tier 3 simultaneously," LaRouche says. Tier 1 specs would include alternative designs to facilitate mixed service—regional/commuter rail and more conventional passenger rail, along with service equivalent to Amtrak's Acela Express at speeds up to 125 mph. "It's a giant step forward," he says. Also scheduled: outlining safety procedures for Tier 3, mixed service up to 125 mph, and "dedicated" high speed rail passenger service, such as sought by California, at speeds of 220 mph.
LaRouche says the ongoing work is a good condition, and not indicative of a failure to achieve a consensus on safety or operations. "FRA is not lowering the standards," he stresses. "They're not inferior; they're different." LaRouche has previously noted that crash avoidance becomes more critical than crashworthiness as train speeds increase, a stance critics of the FRA stressed for years.
"People now are saying, 'Amtrak backed down on speed requirements.' But no, they're still going forward with a joint procurement [with California High-Speed Rail Authority]; they'd like to buy something with a similar platform."
From Bombardier's point of view, "Ideally, one would like to offer them equipment that eventually can go 220 mph, but can operate in mixed service at 160 mph," LaRouche says. "That sounds like Tier 2, but Tier 3 rules creates an environment where Amtrak can work toward an environment that allows them to do that." Both the Safety Advisory Committee and Engineering Task Force provide the groundwork for that to happen, he adds.
As for California's HSR plans, "People are quick to seize on a setback and say 'that's the end of that project,'" LaRouche notes. As the state struggled with the quarreling over the legitimacy of a bond issue process, "people said that's the end. But that's one particular aspect of that project that has to be worked on," LaRouche says.
The needs of the two HSR projects, and the safety requirements surrounding them, will remain different for some time. "Tier 3 work is perfect for California, which is a 'greenfield' project" with brand-new right-of-way, says LaRouche, contrasting it with Amtrak's venerable Northeast Corridor, "defined 100 years ago; you have to deal with that reality" of a "brownfield" project.
Amtrak is seeking up to 28 high speed trainsets, each with between 400 and 450 seats, that can meet or exceed current Acela Express trip times on existing NEC infrastructure.
CHSRA is seeking an initial order of 15 trainsets with a minimum of 450 seats that can meet its planned trip-time requirements for service from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles, again, on what is planned as mostly new infrastructure.
Only current manufacturers of high speed rail equipment, which Amtrak and CHSRA define as "manufacturers with equipment in commercial operation at speeds of at least 160 mph (257 kph) for at least two years," will be eligible to submit a bid. Bombardier plans to be one of those qualified bidders.
Safety for low-speed gear
Almost counterintuitively, the return of streetcars and light rail transit to North American urban centers (see story, p. 41) has highlighted potential safety issues urban rail can have vis a vis pedestrian and bicycle traffic, themselves enjoying a resurgence in cities across the continent. The new mix, however, also has proven effective in exposing a far more dangerous mode—automotive traffic—giving rail suppliers that much more of an incentive to display the better safety performance of steel wheel on steel rail.
Indeed, some urban activists suggest the presence of a streetcar, by itself, enhances street safety through its predictable travel route and stricter adherence to street speed limits, both often far superior to the individual automobile, known to wander off path and onto sidewalks—or into LRT or streetcar vehicles, even broadsiding them. "When a car T-bones a [rail] vehicle, we ensure that the design can absorb that impact," says George Long, Director of Engineering, Siemens Rail Systems, U.S.
So even at low speeds, crash energy management becomes critical for rail vehicles traversing and sharing those streets otherwise behaving themselves. "What can we do to absorb the energy, and protect the drivers and the passengers?" Long asks, setting the table.
Siemens, in deploying its S70 platform for both light rail and streetcar submodes, has generated 14 iterations of the product line since 2002. Per Europe's EN-13227 standard and the U.S.'s Rail Transit-1 (RT-1) standard, crash resistance of 20 mph was specified. A revision to RT-1 increased that to 25 mph, and "We thought it was better to go to 25 mph, just to be the first one in the market," Long says.
Long notes Ottawa's recent equipment purchase (awarded to Siemens competitor Alstom) specified RT-1 standards, something Long believes will be commonplace very shortly.
Automobiles do hit LRT and streetcar vehicles broadside, but more often the clashes are "typically vehicle-to-vehicle head-on" incidents, Long says. That makes it imperative for the rail vehicles to be built to protect engineers or operators through "a progressive collapse of the vehicle," or crumple zone, similar to what automobiles employ. Such design also fosters "replaceable structural elements that are more 'repairable,'" Long notes.
"We prove it first by calculation, then analytically by software analysis. Then we actually crash [a test vehicle] at 25 mph." Since test crashes are costly, the effectiveness of a crash-absorbent operator's cab pays off not just in a better product in the field but also reduces the cost of the crash tests themselves.
But just like HSR operations, crash avoidance also factors in heavily into Long's thinking. "What can we do to have more pedestrian safety?" he asks rhetorically. Some responses are simple (and elegant). S70 LRT gear in Minneapolis (and, later this year, in sister city St. Paul, Minn.) have automatic couplers and snowplows, with covers, to keep pedestrians and others from literally being dragged underneath a vehicle. Even automobiles are considered. "We're looking at couplers all folded back so they can't puncture a car vehicle gas tank," Long says.
Then there's the operator, the human element, that can be assisted. "How can we improve his or her viewing angles? What are the blind spots he or she might have? You want good visibility around you," Long says—as critical to enhanced safety as any high-tech development.
A final factor, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), "is very critical," Long observes. "A lot of cities have ADA committees," active in ensuring the safe boarding, or departure, of rail passengers cross the U.S. and Canada, more eager than ever to opt for the safer way to travel.