Why the US never manages to purchase modern rolling stock

When I recently read that NJ Transit is signing the contract to purchase new double-deck EMUs, I was positively surprised. Not only did they manage to purchase an electric multiple unit (EMU) which is much more suitable for commuter and regional transport, but they also went for a double-deck configuration permitting more capacity at the limited station length.

However, when I looked at the animations of the newly purchased EMU I was shocked. NJ Transit purchased a train that is, at least from a customers’ perspective similar to what was sold in Europe in the 1980s, so what happened?

In comparison to modern rolling stock

To compare the new purchase, one can for instance have a glance at the double-deck EMU, SBB purchased and put into service in 2012.

The differences that become immediately apparent are:

  • The 3-car configuration requires a lot of cab cars – with all its equipment, space required for traction equipment and, of course, with the associating elevated maintenance costs. Not surprisingly, NJ Transit plans to run the trains in coupled formation (6-12 cars)
  • The color scheme orients itself on the 1970s – and no, it is not timeless, it is just ugly and does not help the passenger to get a positive, light feeling when commuting to work
  • Lots of edges means lots of effort necessary to clean the car – and it feels very crammed
  • Each cap-car also allows a pass-through. This has, in my opinion, no purpose and benefit for customers as well as mechanics but just requires lots of space (yes, we had this also in Europe, but the last trains like these were purchased in the 80s, except for the UK)
  • Lots of staircases for not too many seats means a loss of use-full space for the customers.
  • No cantilever for holding up the seat structure means significantly more time required for cleaning of the floors.

Why the US is innovation averse in railway rolling stock

The US is in general not innovation averse, but when it comes to railway rolling stock, or railway signaling for that matter, the country does not invest in innovative solutions. There is no single reason for it, but in my opinion, there are three major reasons for this behavior:

  • FRA, CFR 49 and AAR standards build on a philosophy where each detail needs to be regulated. This limits the tolerance for innovation significantly. It is correct, as long as it has been considered correct before. For any deviation, a waiver has to be permitted, and these waivers are timewise limited, so a worst case scenario for an innovation would entail that a fleet has to be grounded.
  • The majority of purchasing organizations in the US are publicly owned and thus very safe work places. People in these organizations ensure their own job security when purchasing what was available and tested before. Since it is public money, the focus is not on cost reduction and optimization.
  • Lack of planning and a generally reactive transport planning in regard to the population growth and change of customers’ needs. Since most electro-mechanical equipment has a lead time from planning to putting into service of over 5 years, it is necessary to plan far ahead instead of just reacting to exploding demand. Acela Express is an example where demand has been for a very long time much higher than the actual offers from Amtrak.

But when looking at that, these challenges do not seem to be impossible to overcome, or are they?

What to improve/what to do

Again, there is no simple solution or a single approach that would guarantee success. A few ideas what can be done are summarized in this list:

  • Move into unregulated territory, i.e. build a hyperloop or anything else that does not fall under the current regulations. With this, you can design your safety requirements fit for purpose.
  • Change the regulations fundamentally and move from a detail oriented regulation to an only safety oriented regulation. The checks for compliance can be done by a notified body or a dedicated body similar to the European system to avoid any organizational bottle necks.
  • Focus on the customers’ anticipated needs and quantity in the future – or build, where possible, modular.
  • Plan transportation axes before population arrives – e.g. densely populated areas in the central valley in California.

If there is no fundamental change in the setup of US railway projects, they will continue to be more expensive (factor 2), take longer (factor 1.5) and be far less innovative than in the rest of the world.


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