High-Speed Rail Rules Delayed Amid Trump Deregulatory Order

By Shaun Courtney

Federal safety standards for high-speed rail have been delayed as the Federal Railroad Administration determines how to release new rules while adhering to President Donald Trump’s order that agencies eliminate two regulations for every one they issue.

The FRA’s chief safety officer, Robert Lauby, said his agency’s regulations are “complete or ready to be issued,” but regulators need guidance on how to proceed under the new White House. The FRA does not have an appointed administrator or deputy administrator in place.

“We want to get some new leadership. We want to get some consistency and have some more direction,” Lauby told Bloomberg BNA. “There’s more questions that need to be answered before we will have a firm way forward.”

Regulations Wanted

The proposed high-speed rail rules released in November would create a new tier of safety standards that allow passenger rail service at speeds up to 220 mph along lines shared with commuter and other rail. Currently, Amtrak’s Acela is the fastest train operating on lines shared with slower trains; it is approved to travel up to 150 mph, but does so on just a small segment of track.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s commitment to safety was “music to my ears” Lauby told a gathering of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee. However, without leaders at the top of his agency, the safety group would have to take its time.

Lauby said the rail industry wants the regulations released, calling them “well-liked” because they will provide cost-savings and were developed in coordination with rail and affected industries.

“Rather than have a big question mark, this provides predictability,” Lauby told Bloomberg BNA. “They know exactly what they need to build. They can do accurate costs estimates, and they can have good proposals, and they can compete with each other.”

Slow and Uncertain

California’s high-speed rail project received a project-specific approval from the FRA, but even that project has placeholders referencing proposed rules in its procurement documents for new trains, Frank Vacca, chief program manager for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, told Bloomberg BNA. Vacca said they expect the regulations to be in place before California needs to finalize its contracts.

“The process is already moving. It just becomes a lot easier if it’s a definite,” Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association told Bloomberg BNA.

The lack of regulations allowing high-speed rail in the U.S. creates uncertainty for the industry and potential future projects, according to industry experts.

Unlike its traditional rail counterpart, high-speed rail is really a “brand new industry” in the United States, US High Speed Rail Association President Andy Kunz said. High-speed rail also needs political longevity; industry standards set by the government could help there too, he said.

“Until there is a clear understanding across the industry about what’s allowable, there’s going to be uncertainty about how to proceed,” Caltrain Chief Communications Officer Seamus Murphy told Bloomberg BNA.

Harnish said the new regulations are “critical” to the future development of the industry in the U.S.

“It’s been a frustratingly slow process. The Trump administration has slowed it down further,” Harnish said.

FRA’s Lauby said though his agency has to make sure it is meeting the new administration’s one-in-two-out rule, they would continue to their work on safety, which he said is a bipartisan issue.

“We intend to push forward, to address safety issues pretty much as we always have,” Lauby said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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