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If Roads Were Regulated Like Rails, Everyone Would Drive a Cement Mixer

Tuesday, June 08, 2010 at 08:13 AM EDT

If highways were regulated like railways, you would drive a vehicle like this.

In 1970s, the federal government instituted automobile regulations to increase vehicle fuel efficiency — in part by decreasing vehicle weight. The initiative, called "CAFE" or "Corporate Average Fuel Economy," has been renewed and enhanced as recently as 2007. Heavier vehicles tend to be safer vehicles, but Congress and the President have judged that the gain in efficiency at the cost of safety is worthwhile and justified. The stakes are high; roads are dangerous, automobile accidents are common, and literally thousands of people die each year as a result of the CAFE efficiency standards. The government made a tough choice and for four decades the decision has withstood constant scrutiny.

At the same time, the government has effectively been mandating heavier, more polluting, less useful trains. Although rail collisions are rare (particularly compared to auto accidents) the federal agency in charge of the national rail system has banned lightweight railcars from the national rail network. Never seen a single-car train beyond the interior suburbs? That's because they aren't allowed there. Trolley and subway cars operate only on closed-off portions of the rail network that are physically disconnected from the national rail network. Passenger trains must be bulked up in weight to be allowed on traditional rail corridors, even where freight traffic is rarely seen, if ever. For example, the Acela Express Amtrak trainset nearly doubled in weight to comply with the regulations, and as a result it developed numerous design and performance problems.

To recap: the feds required passenger trains to get heavier or be banned from the basically safe national network at the same time that other federal regulators have required passenger cars operating on a dangerous road system to shrink in mass.

The two sets of regulations could not have been more different. Imagine for a moment what the roads would look like if they were operated like the rails. So much for the freedom of the open road; that would be history. If you owned a subcompact car-- or an SUV for that matter-- you would only be able to drive on your driveway, unless you first put up barriers to block off the local road network from the national road network. To be able to drive on a national highway or Interstate, you would need to buy a vehicle the size of a cement mixer, and fill it with cement. Everyone would be required to do this, because (in the language of the rail regulators) otherwise the passenger automobiles would be too lightweight to avoid deforming in a head-on collision with the heaviest tractor-trailers on the road. Vehicle fuel efficiency of these passenger-cement-mixers would be abysmal, people would be forced to pay for excessive vehicles and unwanted tons of cement, and maintenance costs for the vehicles and roads would be much higher.

In effect, rail regulations would convert a useful network of highways into isolated islands of local roads interspersed by connections that are accessible only to impractical overweight passenger vehicles.

No one would seriously suggest that we should have regulations on the highway system like the ones that have been imposed on the rails. That begs the question why we have such onerous rules for trains. A passenger train that can survive a high-speed collision with a locomotive may well be safer to its passengers in that respect. However, the result of the requirement has been a far less connected and useful, and far more expensive, passenger rail system that has forced more and more people into their automobiles. And automobiles are proven to be far more lethal to passengers than trains, in addition to the deleterious impact of automobiles and asphalt on the environment.

So in its zeal to make passenger trains safer by making sure that no passenger rail car on the national network will deform if was unfortunate enough to collide with a coal freight train (whether or not anyone could remember a coal train operating in that location), the federal government has undermined the competitiveness of rail technology and forced everyone to take much more serious risks on the highways, where the risk of death is many times higher than the rails. And where no one expects a passenger automobile to bounce back from a head-on collision with a semi-trailer.

Maybe it's time that regulators considered that heavier passenger trains and a less connected rail system are not actually a safer or more convenient for the public at large. A lighter passenger train (or trolley service on regular railways) operating on the national rail network might help drivers off of the roads ... and that alone would save lives.