New Toys For Amtrak?

Somehow this has not hit the news much around here, but today Amtrak (the USA nationwide railroad passenger service) acknowledged that it has begun to think about aquiring new high speed train sets to replace the "Acela". The Acelas are the Amtrak flag ship of the NorthEast Corridor service between Washington, DC and Boston, Massachussetts. The service demands a premium on top of the regular fare and the trains only have Business and First Class. 

Amtrak Acela Express Train Set (Photo by Michael Kurras)

The Acela Express has been a success story for Amtrak. The railroads share of the total passenger traffic between New York City and Boston is now over 40 per cent. 

Between Washington, DC and New York City the passenger numbers also increased significantly, however that did not diminish the fact that the Acela timings on that section are a full 15 minutes slower than the old PennCentral Railroad's "Metroliner" managed to achieve in the late 1960's! I have mentioned this before in one of my blog entries: Amtrak's focus on a top high speed is misplaced. What they should be focusing on is a high average speed throughout the NorthEast Corridor. Currently the train is able to travel along at 125 mph in a few sections, but crawls along at 50 mph or less in many more sections, losing all the time gained. There are a multitude of reasons for this problem. Misguided priorities regarding infrastructure improvements and politics being the top two. 

The Acela train sets began service in 2000. After a somewhat lengthy bidding process Bombardier-Alstom was given the go-ahead to produce 20 train sets. In previous years Amtrak had tested some high speed train sets from Germany and Sweden, hoping to be able to purchase them "off the rack". However, this was not to be -- for a variety of reasons. 

German InterCityExpress Test Train Set for Amtrak (Photo by Ralf Meier)

X2000 Test Train Set for Amtrak in Washington, DC (Photo by Ralf Meier)

Consequently, what resulted was a unique train designed specifically to satisfy very specific U.S. governmental rolling stock requirements, including a requirement to be able to collide with a freight train at speed without collapsing. This, in turn, requires that the passenger cars be built with massive amounts of extra material and weight. These requirements are significantly different from anywhere else in the world, including countries that have a highly functional high speed rail network which use modern signalling and computer controls to emphasize crash prevention. Most manufacturers that bid were unable to meet these requirements, citing significant extra cost and complications for the manufacture of the trains, and requiring manufacturers to make significant engineering changes to its standard designs. 

Although the design of the trains, with identical 6,000 horsepower (4,470 kW) power cars at each end which operate on a voltage of 11,000 volts AC, and either 25 or 60 Hertz (cycles per second) frequency, resemble France's TGV (not surprisingly since Bombardier-Alstom got the bid) only a few components are directly derived from the TGV.

Double Decker TGV (photo by SNCF)

These TGV-derived components are the traction system from third-generation TGV trainsets (including the four asynchronous AC motors per power car, rectifiers, inverters, and regenerative braking technology), the structure of the trucks/bogies (with a long wheelbase dual transom H frame welded steel with outboard mounted tapered roller bearings), the brake discs (although there are only three per axle, versus four on the TGV), and the crash energy management techniques to control structural deformations in the event of an accident.

The tilting carriages are based upon Bombardier's earlier Canadian LCR trains used on VIA Canada rather than the TGV's non-tilting articulated trailers, and the locomotives and passenger cars are much heavier than those of the TGV in order to meet the United States Federal Railroad Administration's different approach to rail crash standards. 

VIA Rail Canada LRC Coach (Photo by Keith Wilson)

A Japanese Diesel Multiple Unit at full speed and tilt (6 degrees)

The Tier II crash standards, adopted in 1999, have also resulted in the passenger cars being designed without steps and trapdoors, which means that the trainsets can only serve lines with high-level platforms such as the Northeast Corridor. Acela trains are semi-permanently coupled (but not articulated as in the TGV).

Technically, these sets are not Electric Multiple Units, but rather prosaically called a push-pull train -- with a locomotive at either end. They are totally over-powered with 12000 horsepower. Compare the six car Acela horsepower number to the Deutsche Bahn ICE set with 14 coaches and a top speed of 180 mph at 6400 horsepower! Amtrak really boxed itself in with having only six coaches and having them semi-permanently coupled. Seating capacity is considerably lower than in a '"regular" locomotive and coach NorthEast Corridor train. On a normal train, it is very easy to just attach more coaches in order to add more passenger seats during high demand periods. Not so with the Acela, or any of the other semi-permanently coupled train sets currently in use like the Virgin Pendolinos, the TGVs or the ICE trains. It is very time consuming and expensive to add coaches to all of these. For an object lesson on that issue, just take a look at the Virgin Pendolino extension program in the United Kingdom. Vastly over budget and behind schedule this seemed to be one of the considerable number of reasons Amtrak decided to cancel their order of 40 coaches planned to extend capacity on the Acelas.

Thus, we are back to Amtrak's plan to order new high speed train sets. Proposals for bids are suppose to go out during the middle of 2013. No news on possible technical specifications yet. Lets just hope that Amtrak learned from the Acela experience.

Is this the future of Amtrak trains?