By Stuart Burns
High-speed rail has been a source of considerable copper, steel and aluminum consumption in China, not to mention employment among high-technology train construction companies, signaling manufacturers, and of course, in the construction phase for track-layers and associated infrastructure.
So when a major change is made to U.S. rules allowing the participation of foreign train suppliers, expertise and finance into the market, it creates quite a stir of excitement as to what could be achieved in the North American market.
The FT reported this week on a change that will allow European firms like Germany’s Siemens (SI), builder of Germany’s ICE3 high-speed train capable of up to 220 mph, and France’s Alstom, builder of France’s TGV high-speed trains, to participate in the market previously the preserve of only domestic manufacturers.
The previous system wasn’t simply an act of protectionism, however.
U.S. rules, routed in the past, required trains to withstand a head-on crash with freight trains – which account for the vast majority of traffic on the vast U.S. railroad network – with no change in shape, according to the FT.
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Most European trains are designed to withstand high-speed, head-on crashes, but they do so by absorbing the energy in crumple zones at the vehicle ends. The new rules will allow passenger trains built on European principles, either high-speed or commuter trains, to operate in the U.S..
Most U.S. mainline passenger trains at present consist of passenger coaches hauled by locomotives built by General Electric (GE) or Caterpillar (CAT), the two big diesel locomotive manufacturers who operate something of a duopoly; but the rule change would allow trains with engines under the carriages, as in Europe, Japan and China, to operate.
The new rules will allow trains to run at up to 125 mph on lines shared with other traffic and 220 mph on dedicated high-speed lines. Work starts on the U.S.’ first dedicated high-speed rail line – in California – later this year.
Henry Posner, a U.S.-based rail entrepreneur with experience in European passenger services, was excited about the change, seeing opportunities for both commuter and long distance travel.
He said in another FT article that it would be easier with cheap multiple units to test the market for new, start-up commuter services.
The changes are likely to take place later this year, and not just Siemens and Alstrom, but also Bombardier of Canada, the world’s largest train maker, are keen to see what opportunities it throws up for a renaissance of America’s once-great railways.