An Amtrak Retrospective

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Back in 1986, I had the great pleasure of writing a book on the US National Railroad Passenger Corporation – Amtrak. This was one of the most interesting and in many ways surprising pieces of research I had done reviewing the way rail systems were operated in countries other than Britain. At the time of publication, British Rail was being underfunded to a greater degree than ever before, and competition with air and road traffic continued to take more freight and more passengers away from the nationalised rail system. Similarly aggressive completion across transportation networks was being seen in the USA, and the Class 1 railroads were suffering financially.

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Like the UK, the USA had already moved over from steam to mainly diesel traction, all funded by the privately owned railroads, which depended primarily for their revenue on freight, and as a consequence, passenger traffic was of little or no importance to the Class 1 railroads in particular. The great transcontinental journeys were being whittled away – but the people, supported by their government and Department of Transportation (DOT), knew that the total loss of anything other than suburban and commuter services was not the answer for the rail network’s future.

 

Just as in Britain, rail under investment meant that many longer distance passenger routes were being cut, or reduced to a meaningless level, so that railroads only needed to support the routes and tracks that carried the most freight, and they were maintained to levels primarily for those long haul freights.  There was no demand, outside the Northeast Corridor for high-speed services.

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An interesting consist out in the mid west, with a mixture of old and new diesel power

Rio Grande timetable

The D&RGW operated the middle portion of the old “California Zephyr”, and although Amtrak planned to reinstate the service after 1971, they could not agree terms with the Rio Grande, initially, but by 1983 the service was restarted under Amtrak and over the Rio Grande section.

Intervention from Federal Government was needed, in the form of subsidies to support the passenger train, if that animal was not to disappear from the USA almost altogether – it came so very close to extinction during the latter part of the 1960s. The main “culprit” behind the near demise of the North American long-distance passenger train was the aeroplane. The airlines’ share of the inter-city passenger market had grown from less than 2% in 1944 to 77.7 % in 1970, while over the same period .the railroads’ share was almost exactly its mirror image, dwindling from 75.7 % in 1944 to 5.7 % in 1970. The rail

roads had attempted to stem this decline in ridership during the 1950s and 1960s, modernising their fleet of rolling stock, with diesel traction hauling almost all the principal trains throughout the country. Other improvements, and substantial capital expenditure on traffic control, signalling, track, and some fairly novel designs for new rolling stock, failed to halt the drift to the airlines, however.

The whole challenge came to an end following the spate of mergers and bankruptcies in the 1960s, and although nationalisation was unthinkable, the railroads continued to press for subsidies. The collapse of the merged Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads was the catalyst for change, and highlighted the dilapidated state of rolling stock, poorly maintained tracks, completely unsuitable for passenger trains. Nowhere in the USA was this more evident than in the North Eastern States.

What was to be done?

Amtrak was created as a semi-public corporation to run the country’s passenger trains under the era of President Richard Nixon. Oddly at one point during the set up of Amtrak (originally called “Railpax”), Nixon managed to deny that this was even under consideration, but by October 1970, the deal was done, and in May 1971 Amtrak began operations.

Successive amendments to the Railpax Act gave Amtrak room to improve and expand its operations and services. But it was still running trains over other people’s tracks, which, in the north-eastern USA in particular, were in a less than satisfactory condition for passenger workings. In 1976, Amtrak became a fully-fledged Class 1 railroad, owning its own right of way, the Boston-New York-Washington artery, known as the North East Corridor (NEC). This it obtained from Conrail (the Government-sponsored organisation that took over Penn Central’s freight operations), under the terms of the “4R”s Act (Railroad Revitalisation & Regulatory Reform), for the sum of $86,366,000, to be paid-off in eight annual instalments.

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Amtrak’s first new locos – the SDP40F built in 1973

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The bi-level passenger car was not unusual on US railroads, but the ‘Superliners’ were the corporation’s first new cars.

A total of $3.3 billion was provided up until the late 1990s for the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project (NECIP), a massive engineering and construction effort that improved major sections of the main line between the major conurbations between Boston and Washington.

In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration called for funding for Amtrak to be stopped, and year after year the FRA, DOT and the Administration fought ongoing battles over finance. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Amtrak funding was cut every year, except 1987, whilst ironically perhaps, his successor, George Bush Snr. increased spending each year he was in office.

The massive uncertainty around federal support, and the years of underfunding left Amtrak with a considerable debt going into the 1990s, and by the middle of the decade a shortage of cash seriously affected the corporation’s goal of operational self-sufficiency. This together with stagnation in the number of passengers carried posed a serious threat to its survival, with the Corporation borrowing money to meet day to day operating needs and unable to service debt interest payments.

Amtrak Funding 1971-86Amtrak Funding 1987-2001Amtrak Funding 2002-2016In 1992, Congress authorised funding to the tune of $5.3 billion over the following 5 years, which was of some relief to the “Acela” project. Towards the end of the decade Amtrak received a $2.3 billion tax refund through the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, and with support from Congress some stability was restored.

There was also a push to privatisation – at least in part – with the NEC between Boston and Washington the prime candidate. It may be that the USA was watching developments in Europe at this time too, where privatisation was becoming something of an obsession – in the UK especially. Although the results in Britain have not been successful.

After the turn of the century, Amtrak’s prospects had improved little financially, though passenger numbers had started to grow, despite the lack of investment in repairs and upgrades to rolling stock, motive power, track and infrastructure across the system. There were pockets of improvements, and the “Acela” project had provided the first new high-speed service since “Mighty Mouse” (the AEM7s), and revamped “Metroliners” and “Turbotrains”.

Between 1971 and 1986, average annual funding was $726 million, whilst from 1986 to 2001, it was $865 million, and from 2001 to 2016, it has increased to $1,311 million.

Trains & Traction

On the hardware front, Amtrak imported French ANF-Industrie turbine-powered trains in 1974, which were put to work on midwest services, and proved far more successful than the earlier United Aircraft turbotrains. The gas-turbine high-speed trains were supplemented by a modified home- built version, from Rohr Industries of California, which went into use on Amtrak’s Empire Service, out of New York.

By the 1980s, Amtrak had introduced a fair number of innovative designs of coal, and traction, whilst maintaining what they described as the “heritage fleet”.

List of Amtrak Locomotives and rolling stock in 1983

The former Penn Central e.m.u. “Metroliners” were introduced in the NEC as a high-speed service, but soon after their introduction in 1969 trip times in the NEC were not as expected, and although later modifications improved this, the arrival of the AEM-7 “Mighty Mouse”, and “Amfleet” passenger cars were far more successful in achieving the 125-m.p.h. service regularly.

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Turboliners built by Rohr Industries, after successful trials of the French built gas turbine powered trains.

By the 1980s the 47 AEM-7’s were the stars of the NEC lines, running between Boston and Washington, DC on Amtrak’s first high-speed route, and in many ways paved the way for the expanding high-speed rail in the USA. However, the loss of the electrification at 25kV AC from Boston to New Haven was a blow, and the result of yet more underfunding in the 1980s. This was subsequently reinstated and funded in the 1990s, completing the high-speed electric service, from New Haven to Boston, and finally completed in July 2000.

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Swedish built Class AEM7 electric on the NEC at Boston-Washington International Airport station, with a train of 4 ‘Amfleet’ cars, soon after their introduction.

For further expansion of high-speed rail, Amtrak needed both legislation from Congress in the shape of the “Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991” (ISTEA), and the lease and testing of existing technology from Sweden and Germany.

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ABB/Adtranz ‘X2000’ train paved the way for the ‘Acela’ train – the first train with tilt technology on US railroads.

From October 1992 until January 1993, Amtrak had operated the ‘X2000’ tilting train from ABB (from 1996, known as Adtranz) on test, and between February and August 1993, it ran services between Washington DC and New York. In the same year – July 1993 – Siemens provided an ICE1 train, after adapting to US conditions and power supplies, for testing and operations in the NEC, and which was also showcased at other cities across the USA and Canada. These tests were intended to provide a framework for the design of the US’s first high-speed trains, to rival that of France, Germany and Japan.

They were supported in part at least by the agreement for high-speed rail corridors as required under the ISTEA legislation, which included:

  1. California Corridor
  2. Pacific Northwest Corridor
  3. South Central Corridor
  4. Gulf Coast Corridor
  5. Chicago Hub Network
  6. Florida Corridor
  7. Southeast Corridor
  8. Keystone Corridor
  9. Empire Corridor
  10. Northern New England Corridor

The US DOT had carried out improvements to the Interstate 95 freeway, which had increased competition for Amtrak’s 45% share of the passenger market in the Northeast corridor, and unsurprisingly Amtrak looked to European rail operators for high-speed rail technologies. It was decided to meet the threat from road transport by rebranding NEC services and introducing new trains. In 1995, when it all started, the new trains project was named “American Flyer” but later changed to “Acela” (derived from ‘excellence’ and ‘acceleration’).

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The Acela Express travels south from the Newark, DE station.

Of course, the NEC was the first such corridor, and in 2000, the first of the partially tilting “Acela” trains from Bombardier-Alstom arrived. The train configuration has a non-tilting power car at each end and sandwiched between them are six tilting intermediate trailers. Bombardier were responsible for building the vehicle bodies and assembly, building on their knowledge and experience with the VIA Rail “LRC” trains for Canada, whilst Alstom provided the power and control systems.

Next stop …

Following the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) produced an important strategy and policy document the “Preliminary National Rail Plan” (PNRP or Preliminary Plan) to address the rail needs of the Nation.  The introductory pages of which included a neat table of the benefits of rail:

Rail Current Benefits

On page 18 of this report is a statement that is as true today as it was then, and is perhaps even more pronounced in the UK:

“The United States has a dwindling pool of expertise in the field of passenger rail and a lack of manufacturing capability.”

On the same page, the policy also states:

“But future investment in passenger rail could lead to a resurgence of this industry and require new technologically advanced designs.”

Then in 2011, the “Gateway Project” was announced, with a plan to increase the capacity and upgrades on the NEC, where population density is 12 times he US national average, and where 20% of US GDP is generated. The $20 billion project provides for building a new double track line linking Newark, New Jersey, and New York, with new rail bridges and tunnels over and under the Hudson River. This will not only provide the essential extra capacity, but offer resilience against damaging storms, such as Hurricane Sandy – although the new administration has cast some doubt over its funding.

New trains would obviously be needed, and in pursuit of high speed rail, the Amtrak Next Gen HSR Vision” proposition was published in September 2010, together with the further adoption of 25kV AC, 60 Hz electrification, consistent with New Haven-Boston system. The overhead Contact System (OCS) being a simple, auto tensioned catenary system with an autotransformer feed system.

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Alstom’s composition of the train soon to arrive on Amtrak rails.

In terms of rolling stock this ultimately resulted in the commitment in 2016 to spend $2.45 billion to pay for new Acela equipment – essentially a fleet of 28 new trains, to replace the existing 20 sets, together with upgrades to the NEC.  The new trains, known as “Avelia Liberty” will be built by Alstom at Hornell and Rochester in New York, and will enter service in 2021, and will provide both the high-speed (planned, 350 km/h (220 mph) top speed), and extra capacity on the route. The original Acela trains had a seating capacity of 304, whilst the new generation will seat 400.

Investment in Amtrak and rail in general in the USA has in many ways surpassed that of the UK, and for a country stereotyped for its love of the automobile, it continues to demonstrate the benefits of a holistic transportation system.

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Postscript

Back in 1986, “Railway Magazine” published this little item by me as a summary of progress and prospects made by Amtrak since its birth in 1971.

Amtrak Rly Mag Feature

Rly Mag July 1986 – Amtrak Progress & Prospects

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