April 24th, 2005

Traveling again

I’m going home today.

According to the Amtrak website, my train is sold out. That should be…interesting.

And, as luck would have it, this appears in today’s NY Times, entitled “Acela, built to be rail’s savior, bedevils Amtrak at every turn.”

Excerpts from the article:

Before the first train was built, the Federal Railroad Administration required it to meet crash safety standards that senior Amtrak officials considered too strict. That forced the manufacturers, Bombardier Inc. of Canada and GEC Alstom of France, to make the trains twice as heavy as European models. Workers dubbed the trains “le cochon” – the pig.

Some experts have speculated that the added weight contributed to a series of problems, including the latest one, with Acela’s wheels, brakes and shock-absorbing assemblies. Federal regulators are still investigating the cause of those problems….

The railroad agency has long required that passenger trains be heavier than European ones to withstand crashes.

Bombardier knew its new train would have to meet those requirements, a spokeswoman said. But Mr. Downs said he asked the rail agency to ease that standard for the new high-speed trains, to no avail.

“They decided they wanted to make this the safest train in the world,” he said. “All my engineers thought the rules were nuts.”

It’s interesting that some of the problems with the Acela seem to have come from the relative strictness of safety standards here in the US vis a vis Europe. I’ve noticed this trend before in other areas, such as the pharmaceutical industry. For example, those who recall the thalidomide babies may remember that there were relatively few born in this country as compared to Europe, because our regulations on the medication’s use in pregnancy were stricter.

I have no way of knowing who is right in the case of train safety–the US or Europe–and whether the regulations are too strict here, or are too lenient there. If I lack expertise in economics, I am a wizard in that field compared to my knowledge of train design. But I suspect that the sentence “All my engineers thought the rules were nuts” may be telling. Then again, maybe not.

In any case, it’s just another topic on which the US and Europe don’t see eye-to-eye.

2 Responses to “Traveling again”

  1. Pat Says:

    The need/ability to ride the train varies a lot with location; almost nobody rides them in the Western US.

    On safety issues it’s always useful to do a cost/benefit analysis. If you can save a life for $10,000, obviously it makes sense. If it costs $200,000,000 per life saved, then you’ve got to wonder.

    Of course, leftists typically hate this kind of cold-blooded analysis, but it is the only rational way to compare risks.

    Ironically, this also implies that US safety standards should be higher than European standards, because the value of a person is higher in the US.

  2. Paul Says:

    I love to ride the train and I hope that someday the powers that be realize that we need them and upgrade the rail system.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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