The Acela Express: Aboard America’s Fastest Train

Posted on Thursday, November 12th, 2009 at 5:58 am by dpacheco

The following is an excerpt from Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons. It has been adapted for the Web.

The streets smelled of rain and garbage. Delivery trucks rolled boxes onto conveyers and into the vaults beneath the sidewalks. There were enough people out that it felt safe to walk, but when I crossed Fifth Avenue, a cab came by so I got to the station early and took a seat in the waiting area for Acela passengers. My train left at 6:00 a.m.

Amtrak runs two types of train sets on the Northeast Corridor—the Acela and the Northeast Regional. Between Boston and Washington, where there is an electrified infrastructure, all Amtrak trains are powered by electric locomotives that draw power from overhead wires called a catenary. The freights and some commuter trains are powered by diesel-electric locomotives.

Acela is the faster train between New York and Washington, making the trip typically in about 2 hours 45 minutes. Riders pay a premium for the experience, $200 for a one-way ticket during peak hours. A Northeast Regional train costs half as much and makes the trip, depending on the train, in 3 hours 15 minutes to 3 hours 40 minutes. Not a huge difference, but if time is money or you’re measuring the train against a shuttle flight or want more luxury, fewer stops and a smoother ride, then Acela is worth it.

Each Acela train set of two locomotives, a café, and four coaches carries 304 passengers. Amtrak bought twenty train sets for $600 million from a consortium of Bombardier in Quebec and Alstom of France. The components were manufactured abroad and assembled in Vermont and New York to create some jobs in America.

Because of Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety requirements, an Acela train is nearly twice as heavy as France’s TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse— French for high-speed train), which is also manufactured by Alstom.

Acela’s floor is reinforced to protect against debris on the tracks. Unlike Europe’s high-speed corridors, the Northeast Corridor is only partially fenced; it even crosses some highways at grade. Amtrak wanted to run a push-pull configuration, but the FRA under the Clinton administration said a cab car did not meet crashworthiness standards, so another locomotive was added at the other end. The train is overpowered. Even with a single locomotive, the Acela can run at 200 mph, but FRA rules do not allow speeds above 150 mph on tracks shared with freights and slower passenger trains. Acela averages just 80-some mph, and rarely goes faster than 130 for small stretches. Its speed is limited by curves, tight confines in tunnels—especially in Baltimore—freight traffic, and other drawbacks that make true high-speed performance impossible. The high-speed corridors in Europe and Japan are straight, level, sealed from intrusion, and set aside solely for fast passenger trains. To create such a corridor in the Northeast with its dense population would cost tens of billions of dollars and require the purchase or condemnation of more land and neighborhoods.

Running with an engine at each end, the Acela is “semi permanently coupled,” so adding coaches—which Amtrak does not have anyway—would be difficult and time-consuming. “That’s a real shame,” said Don Phillips, the transportation writer for Trains. “With all that extra power, those trains could pull a lot more cars and more people could be riding them.”

To Phillips, Acelas are “mechanical lemons.” Amtrak rarely has more than thirteen or fourteen of the twenty sets running at one time. That’s a 60 percent operational capacity, and by European standards, it’s pathetic, he said.

Mechanical difficulties started early. Shortly after they began running in 2000, cracks developed in key body components. In 2005, cracks were discovered in disc brakes. Still, the trains have a good safety record, and each set has run nearly a million miles. They are in constant use and usually running full. Amtrak is already talking about replacement equipment. If that happens, Phillips said, Amtrak should be allowed to buy off-the-shelf bullet trains. “FRA need not be such a hard-ass about its rules. Then we could get a TGV or something similar that is really proved out. Sure, you might have put on a different suspension and make some adjustments because the Northeast Corridor tracks are made for freight, too, but then you would have something that works.”

World over, really fast trains are electric because they aren’t weighed down by onboard diesel generators fed by heavy fuel tanks. Lighter trains accelerate and decelerate quicker and climb grades more easily. Traction motors create less noise, no exhaust fumes, and require less maintenance. If the power comes from a clean, no-fossil-fuel source—France, for example, produces much of its electricity from nuclear power—the trains have a small carbon footprint.

Electrifying more track in the United States will be expensive, but will be necessary to bring about so-called bullet trains. The high-speed initiative launched by the Obama administration promotes speeds up to 125 mph, which can be accomplished by diesel engines. The most likely steps would be extending the electrification of the Northeast Corridor north to Maine and south toward Florida. However, electric infrastructures are expensive to build. Early in the twentieth century, several railroads electrified their lines into New York City and Philadelphia because the smoke of steam locomotives was a pollution and safety hazard.

In 1968, when the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad merged and absorbed the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, most of the Northeast Corridor came under a single owner.

But the new company, Penn Central, with its competing corporate cultures, heavy union commitments, and stifling government regulation, was doomed from the start. When it declared bankruptcy in 1970—the largest corporate failure in American history prior to Enron—Wall Street and Washington were stunned. Without government help, parts of the Northeast might be without freight service and passenger service. Like General Motors, the big banks, and AIG today, some railroads were deemed too big to fail.

To get Penn Central and the other big railroads out of the failing passenger business, the government created Amtrak. Two years later, Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization (Three R) Act that created Conrail (Consolidated Rail Corporation) from the remains of seven bankrupt northeastern railroads. In effect, Congress nationalized these railroads, and government planners moved aggressively to abandon lines, close facilities, and cut redundancy and waste. Thousands of railroaders lost jobs, and many towns lost their trains.

What to do with the Northeast Corridor? Its electrical infrastructure was old and in need of investment. Conrail was on government-funded life support, and the other freight railroads were into the long-haul business powered by diesel-electric locomotives.

Since the corridor was the nation’s busiest passenger-rail corridor, it was decided to turn it—tracks and all—over to Amtrak, which also received rail yards and maintenance facilities, Penn Station in New York, 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, and half interest in the Union Stations in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Overnight, Amtrak’s payroll doubled. Now it wasn’t just operating trains, it owned a railroad, and the freights had to pay to use its tracks. Congress ponied up a billion or so for infrastructure improvements to create faster service between New York and Washington, but Northeast Corridor operations have continued to siphon off the company’s limited resources for years. Amtrak struggles to maintain old bridges, tunnels, and retaining walls. It has been estimated that about $5 billion is still needed to bring the Northeast Corridor line into “a state of good repair.”

About $500 million of the Obama administration’s stimulus package was channeled into repair and maintenance on the corridor, including replacement of a 102-year-old drawbridge in Connecticut; reconstruction of the historic station in Wilmington, Delaware; and rehabilitation of the electrical infrastructure near Philadelphia that has been in continuous use since the 1920s. The improvements will do little to increase speeds of trains but will stem the corridor’s further deterioration.

It was still dark when my train left New York, crossed under the Hudson River, and ran through the Meadowlands. In northern New Jersey, it filled rapidly with folks dressed in business attire, hefting briefcases, and breaking out laptops and Blackberries as soon as they got aboard.

The train was sleek and clean, the windows big and bright, and the ride smooth when the train got up to speed, which wasn’t that often. Although Acelas can fly on a few open stretches, their passage in and out of major cities is still slow. And though the trains have tilt technology, they slow down for curves.

Some critics say up to 75 percent of Amtrak’s government subsidy finds its way into the Northeast Corridor, while operations elsewhere get shortchanged. It was a complaint I heard often on the West Coast. What really burns critics is Amtrak’s claim that the Acela and the corridor are moneymakers. Many Washington politicians—even some Amtrak haters who want to shut down the system—have a blind spot for the New York–Washington service. Maybe it’s because some of them ride the trains to New York and enjoy the experience. And they see trains packed with riders. How could they not make money?

“The corridor is a money pit, but Amtrak covers it up with funny accounting,” according to Don Phillips. Amtrak measures overall ridership and revenue rather than passenger miles traveled and passenger revenues per mile traveled, which is how airlines and other transportation companies factor costs. The billions allocated by Congress and put into the corridor infrastructure are not depreciated (amortized) as an operating cost against Acela’s bottom line. Consequently, Acela’s cost recovery comes out looking pretty good.

In 2009, under a new administration, Amtrak began a process of changing its accounting practices and the way it measures riders, however.

The myth of the Northeast Corridor’s profitability has a long history, said Jim McClellan, who worked as a planner for FRA when Amtrak was created. Back then, some studies assumed the Northeast Corridor trains would make money for Amtrak and that those profits could offset losses on the other parts of the network. It was wishful thinking, said McClellan, but it helped support the notion that Amtrak wouldn’t always need government help. And that’s what the Nixon administration and some congressional members wanted to hear.

“The concept wasn’t vetted well, and other assumptions were based on it being true. It was a house of cards. In our zeal to save the freight railroads and some passenger trains, we just accepted it would make money. Everyone wanted to believe it.”

The Amtrak Reform Council, created by Congress in the late 1990s to help the company become self-sufficient, suggested Amtrak sell or spin off the corridor as a separate corporation, which could then sell bonds for the repairs. Amtrak would continue only as an operating company.

When I interviewed Gil Carmichael, chair of the council and the FRA administrator under George H. W. Bush, he said that the corridor actually needs $20 billion not $5 billion in improvements. “Amtrak didn’t want to hear about creating a separate company because it wants its own railroad, but it would be better off without the corridor,” he said. “The infrastructure company could raise the kind of money that Amtrak hasn’t been able to provide.”

Despite its problems, the Northeast Corridor remains Amtrak’s flagship asset. More than 100 trains move 27,000 passengers along the corridor each day. Amtrak captures nearly half of the air/rail market between New York and Boston and more than 60 percent between New York and Washington, D.C. Were the Northeast Corridor to shut down, havoc would result with intercity East Coast travel.

And the Acelas do provide a glimpse of an effective high-speed corridor. We rushed through the gritty streets of Trenton, into the glassy glitter of downtown Philadelphia, and then along the blue waters of the Delaware and Chesapeake bays where egrets and sport fishermen looked up as the train passed. The train just blew by traffic on I-95.

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