What do we get in return for ultra-strict train safety regulations?

Transit projects in the United States are known for being unreasonably expensive compared to their European and Asian counterparts, but the reasons for the discrepancy are far from clear.

As this Bloomberg article notes, some of this may be due to poor incentives and little transparency for private contractors, conflicts of interest between engineers and builders, and legal roadblocks. Over at Systemic Failure, they dug up some recent press release quotes from the San Diego-area transit district to make the case for one more cause behind those exorbitant costs: incredibly redundant and over-the-top safety regulations.



Case in point: The North County Transit District needs to replace the brakes on a bunch of their trains (they had worn out much more quickly than expected), and this is how they plan to do it:

The next step is for us along with our contractors, Veolia and Bombardier, to determine the proper procedure for the installation of the new 100g split disc rotors. Together we will take all safety factors into consideration. Once all parties approve this process, we will begin the installation of the new rotors onto the Sprinter test vehicle. FRA and CPUC officials will observe the installation. We have invited representatives from Siemens (the Sprinter manufacturer) and certified California engineers to observe the installation and the testing and to review the data.

So not only are the contractors joining up with the transit agency to replace the brakes, they're also going to be "observed" by two additional government agencies, one federal and one state-level. And they're bringing in a third corporation as well engineers from the area to "observe" even more. One has to wonder if they might also need to rent some stadium seating to ensure that all these men and women are able to see over each others' heads.

He also notes that "testing is expected to go on for months," presumably with representatives from these myriad institutions all hanging around getting paid to watch trains roll by over and over, sagely nodding their heads at each pass. According to the NCTD's own web site, the current round of testing is only the beginning. Not until late April do they expect to start the real testing, which will take another 24 days. And just to prove they're serious, even though no one appears to have ever been in danger due to the accelerated wear on the old brakes, these tests are going to "go above and beyond the testing of the original brakes required by the state." What additional gains in safety will result from this over-achievement are unclear. What is made clear, however, is that the trains might not be back in action for upwards of four months.

The one thing they've done that seems to be reasonable was to take the trains out of service when they discovered the unexpected wear-and-tear on the brakes in late February. Safety is the highest priority from a public service perspective, and although no cracks or other dangerous circumstances seem to have resulted, it was probably correct not to take any chances. The trains were shut down on March 9th though, so perhaps a full month wasn't needed just to get started on the replacement testing...

All sarcasm aside, this is insane. While this is an example of operations being catastrophically disrupted by an overbearing regulatory environment, Systemic Failure has frequently documented exactly the same type of hyperventilatingleading to vastly-increased capital costs.

What's behind these regulations? Is there an epidemic of passenger train-related deaths sweeping across the country? Not even close. From 1999-2008 about five passengers have been killed in trains for every ten billion miles traveled [PDF, page 144]. This, compared to 72 per ten billion miles traveled by car and truck, a rate that is more than 14 times higher and a total fatality count that is almost 2,400 times larger. (Yes, twenty-four hundred.) The vast majority of people killed by trains are pedestrians, about 70-85% of them trespassers, and an estimated 20-50% of the total number (including trespassers) are suicides, not the result of an accidental collision.

From the National Safety Council's report, Injury Facts, 2011 edition.

From the National Safety Council's report, Injury Facts, 2011 edition.

Despite this reality, the vast majority of safety regulation, and therefore cost, seems to be centered around preventing the 5-10 train passenger deaths that occur every year. Compare this to the 600+ pedestrians struck and killed by trains and the thousands more injured. (The number of pedestrian deaths has been on a slow decline from over 1,200 per year in the early 90s.) Requiring reinforced, super-heavy train cars certainly isn't doing anything to solve that problem.

The financial burden of these cumbersome, ill-targeted regulations very likely reaches into the billions of dollars. Imagine how many more lives could be saved and injuries prevented if that money was reinvested into improving passenger rail service--rather than turning our trains into tanks we could recognize and celebrate the fact that they're already the safest way to travel and commute regionally, and then redirect our efforts into making them a viable, convenient option for a greater number of people.