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

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

In the 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 been encouraging heavier, more polluting, less useful passenger trains.  Although rail collisions are rare (particularly compared to auto accidents) the federal agency in charge of the national rail system has strongly discouraged lightweight railcars from the national rail network.  Never seen a single-car train beyond the interior suburbs?  That’s because generally 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.  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.

Waiting With a Bicycle at a Light that Never Turns Green

A change in the law governing bicycles recently was in the news.  In January, the Massachusetts legislature adopted a regime of traffic-ticketing to enforce existing laws that require bicyclists to, for example, stop at red traffic lights.

The Legislature was wise to insist that bicyclists err on the side of safety and caution.  Someone on the road has to, and it probably won’t be automobile drivers, chatting on cell phones and shuffling through the songs on i-pods.

Traffic Sensor Doesn't Notice Bikes

Traffic Sensor Doesn't Notice Bikes

So here’s a question:  what is a bicyclist lawfully required to do when the light never turns green?  It’s a frequent problem.  Modern traffic lights (i.e. the ones used everywhere except the city of Boston) are triggered by sensors that detect automobiles.  Roll over the sensor in a Chevy, and the light turns green.  Roll over the sensor on a Raleigh bicycle and … the light stays red.  It never turns green.  Ever.  Roll back and forth on it.  Jump up and down.  Nothing.

The question is sort of academic; the obvious answer is that you treat the traffic signal an ornament with little relevance to a bicyclist … but still you do so at your own risk — risk of physical injury and risk of legal jeopardy.  Injury because the lights are most frequently used at the most dangerous intersections.  There is a chance that the ornament will be you.  Jeopardy because who is to say the law enforcement officer will agree with your choice.  And it takes some significant waiting and experimenting to be sure the sensor really doesn’t work; that’s not a small inconvenience with traffic lights every few blocks.

I wish I had the answer.  It’s unfortunate, but perhaps the only safe thing to do is to drive.

Green Line Is a Railroad and Other Urban Myths

The Suffolk District attorney charged former Green Line conductor Aiden Quinn of gross negligence in the control of “a railroad train,” according to published reports.  Quinn was at the controls on May 8 in Government Center when his trolley struck another.  His trolley, not his train.

The criminal charge apparently stems from a Massachusetts law that applies to a “railroad or railway of the class usually operated by steam power.”  One probably can’t begrudge the District Attorney for not knowing the precise history of the Green Line and the Scollay Square trolley stop; that history never involved steam.

But it certainly would be interesting if the railroad law applied on the Green Line.  The law has some interesting, specific requirements.  A few things would need to change.  To be a trolley conductor, Quinn would have needed to serve as a “brakeman” for two years.  Not a bad idea … except trolleys only have one driver (and a door-operator) and no brakeman.  Any trolley conductor who never worked as a “brakeman” (probably all of them) would be subject to a $500 fine and year imprisonment.  (There’s no such thing as a railroad “operator”)  Bare-headed Green Line employees also would be no more; all railroad employees must don a “cap.” An employee without a “cap” forfeits $45.

But on the other hand, maybe some changes would make some sense.  If the Green Line was a railroad then it would be required to accept bicycles, one per rider.  Of course, as I’ve written previously, the Green Line irrationally prohibits bicycles under all circumstances. And don’t try to hold the door to keep the Green Line train from leaving the station; if it’s a railroad that offense carries up to a $1,000 fine and 20 years in prison, which makes what Quinn is facing look like tiddly-winks.

Obviously the Green Line isn’t run like a railroad.  There is a reason for that; it’s a street railway, apparently subject to an entirely different law.  That law doesn’t require employees to wear caps, has no obvious requirements for the qualifications of conductors, and (unfortunately) doesn’t require that trolleys accommodate bicycles.  If you merely obstruct a trolley you only can be jailed for three months (instead of 20 years).

And if you drive a trolley at excessive speed like Quinn allegedly did — even willfully — you forfeit $500.  That might conceivably seem like a bit light of a maximum penalty.  But fear not; all operators of common carriers — from steamboats, to buses, to trolleys — also are subject to an entirely different law that the District Attorney apparently did not specifically name, which carries a penalty of two and a half years in jail for gross negligence in the control of any common carrier (not just a railroad).

What does all of this add up to?  Well, ultimately if the District Attorney succeeds in sending Quinn to prison for three years (instead of to jail for 2 1/2)  for crashing a railroad train (and not a trolley), then the T should get ready to welcome bicycles and their riders on that same line.  Because that’s the law!