An issue I’ve seen brought up over and over again with respect to SEPTA here in Philadelphia is the seemingly common-sense suggestion that the transit agency convert at least some of its regional rail lines into light rail lines – that is, replace the aging, hulking Silverliner cars and their quaint conductors and ticket-takers with sleek, modern Light Rail vehicles that can operate on more frequent headways and use modern fare collection, all the while using less energy due to their slighter bulk.
Unfortunately, such a switch would violate archaic federal regulations of rail car specifications and labor laws that date back to the `19th Century. The current system, which I suspect most people don’t even know about, is presented below as a couple of seemingly-boring factoids; however understanding the nuance is crucial to advocating for improved rail transportation throughout the country, from Amtrak trains to commuter trains, heavy rail and light rail.
According to the Federal Government, SEPTA’s Regional Rail is governed under a completely separate regulatory scheme (the rules of the Federal Railroad Administration, to be exact) than are its subways and trolleys, which fall under the purview of the Federal Transit Administration. The FRA has rules that trace their lineage back to the early days of railroading in the 19th Century – this includes physical design requirements and labor laws. The physical design requirements dictate that “railroad” cars, which include SEPTA Regional Rail cars, be far larger and heavier than subway cars or light rail cars, the idea being that they should be able to withstand collisions. As a result, passenger rail cars in the US are usually about 100% heavier than their counterparts in Europe and Asia, where modern train control technology and collision avoidance are the mantra (rather than ‘sheer mass and bulk’ – it’s the same idea that a small efficient car with good steering and brakes is better at avoiding a collision in the first place, even though a hulking SUV may withstand an accident better.) In short, light rail cars, by their very “lightness” would be illegal on “railroad” tracks (again, railroad tracks being those under the jurisdiction of the FRA, even though many “light rail” and “heavy rail” may have the same physical characteristics as “railroad tracks.”)under the current system. “Railroads” under the FRA are part of the “national railroad system,” so theoretically, am Amtrak Train on the Northeast Corridor could be pulled by a diesel locomotive along railroad tracks all the way across the country; subways and light rails, on the other hand are “closed systems” (with the exception of “temporal separation” where light rail operates during the day and freight trains run at night, so they’re not on the same line simultaneously and thus at risk of smashing into one another).
Even if the design standards were changed to allow light rail vehicles on railroad tracks, as long as the labor rules stay the same, then there’d still be conductors on board the light rail cars to take tickets – “off-vehicle fare collection” with smart cards, swipe cards, or tokens would be out of the question under the current system because the labor rules dictate the existence of a given number of conductors and ticket-takers, depending on the number of cars in the train – more cars, more conductors. There are always at least two workers aboard each Regional Rail train – the engineer/operator, plus the conductor(s), but only a single operator aboard a six-car Market Frankford train hermetically sealed in his cab. Of course, the cost of requiring more than one worker per train makes Regional Rail’s operation quite expensive (along with every other “commuter rail” agency and Amtrak). Clearly, Regional Rail could work with automated off-vehicle fare collection – but it’s pointless as long as they’re required to have conductors on board who would otherwise have little, if anything, to do.
It’s time to bring passenger rail in the US into the 21st Century from the 19th Century. Should the Federal Government update its railroad labor laws and design requirements? Should subways and trolleys be under separate regulatory schemes than commuter trains? Should smaller, lighter vehicles be able to serve as commuter trains instead of the hulking masses we see today? Are our current regulations a major obstacle to better, cheaper, faster, more abundant rail transportation?