Amtrak’s Loco Locomotive Purchase for the Northeast Corridor

We’re pleased to welcome Stephen Smith as a new contributor to Streetsblog Capitol Hill. We’ll be running Stephen’s work on a regular basis, and you can catch more of his writing at his home blog, Market Urbanism.

Amtrak’s annual ridership may inch over 30 million for the first time this year, but the assault on its funding by House Republicans hasn’t abated. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chair of the House Transportation Committee, recently proposed slashing Amtrak’s federal subsidies by 25 percent over the next two years. While it’s tough to say how much deficit hawks will actually succeed in cutting, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Amtrak – and indeed public transportation in general – will get the cash that advocates would like. Given the political climate, Amtrak faces, realistically, two choices: do more with less, or cut service and raise fares.

Amtrak's new locomotives
Amtrak is paying a big premium for these locomotives compared to similar purchases made by European rail companies.

Unfortunately, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s recent announcement of a $562.9 million loan to Amtrak to buy new locomotives for the Northeast Corridor suggests that they will not be doing more with less. The money will go to buy 70 electric locomotives, which, as Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations explains, are far more expensive than comparable European and Japanese models, and will lock us into outdated technology for decades to come.

Europe and Asia have realized the benefits of lighter and more nimble trains – cost, speed, and energy consumption among them – but Amtrak’s planned purchase is further proof that the U.S. is not quite there yet. One easy cost-saving move would be to wait two years for Positive Train Control, an anti-crash safety technology, to be fully installed along the Northeast Corridor. By 2015, Amtrak will no longer have to comply with the Federal Railroad Administration’s requirement that trains be able to withstand crashes with enormous freight trains. Free to buy lighter off-the-shelf foreign designs, Amtrak could then save 35-50 percent off the cost of the locomotives, as Alon notes.

An even more radical modernizing and cost-cutting measure (at least in the long run) would be to transition the Northeast Corridor Regional fleet from locomotive-hauled trains to electrical multiple units, or EMUs, in line with best practices in Europe and Asia. EMUs are, like subways in the US, individually-powered carriages, and standard models can be as cheap as the inflated price that Amtrak pays for its unpowered passenger railcars. The locomotive purchase locks Amtrak into buying more of these unpowered carriages in the future, making Amtrak’s decision to go with locomotives all the more important.

Taxpayers and transit-riders may be getting hosed by Amtrak’s lackadaisical attitude towards spending, but the vendors building the trains and supplying its parts probably don’t mind. Siemens may walk away with the lion’s share of the cost differential, spending much of it redesigning the locomotives to FRA standards. Thanks to Buy America domestic sourcing rules, American workers and suppliers will get the rest, with Siemens hiring 250 workers for the contract and knock-on effects for other American suppliers. Amtrak’s aversion to change and Congress’s ambivalence about public transportation started the problem, and these vested interests now have a stake in perpetuating it.

Unfortunately for transit advocates, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are making a serious effort to cajole Amtrak – or any federally-funded programs, really – into spending money more wisely. Mica has put forward two transportation bills recently – a six-year general reauthorization, and a bill focused exclusively on privatizing Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Neither, however, would address crash safety standards or Buy America protectionist policy. His “major streamlining of the federal review process” might make transit projects move along a bit more quickly, but it won’t do anything to bring down high costs.

And while Mica hasn’t made any real effort to spend transit money more effectively, the Obama administration has gone a step further and actually increased costs by strengthening the protectionist stipulations attached to federal transit dollars. Back in February, Federal Transit Administration chief Peter Rogoff issued a memorandum stating that they will no longer consider “public interest” waivers for the Buy America program, which are normally issued when compliance with the rules for sourcing and manufacture would be a burden on transit agencies. This was perhaps inevitable with stimulus dollars, but the administration made clear in the memo that it affects all federal spending, not just stimulus funds.

With high unemployment numbers and an election coming up, the issue of jobs clearly looms large for Obama and the Democrats. Transit is for them as much a jobs program as it is an enhancer of mobility and cities. The risk here, as Tanya discussed a few weeks ago, is that projects will be chosen based on their ability to produce jobs, rather than their effectiveness as transportation.

Transit in the U.S. may be underfunded, but there’s no doubt that it’s also burdened by a considerable amount of waste. Beyond pricey rolling stock, American rail construction costs are astronomical, and labor productivity is rather low. With lean times ahead for the feds and many states, it’s time to get serious about transit spending. This should appeal to liberals because it means more transit, and to conservatives and libertarians because it means less waste and government spending.

But Democrats are still more interesting in ribbon-cuttings than details, and Republicans are still culturally allergic to understanding passenger rail. That means it’s up to urbanists to explain to both sides why getting passenger rail costs under control should be a shared goal.

  • JamesR

    I think this piece feeds into a couple of right wing memes in an unfortunate way. As superior as the Euro-spec locomotives may be, have you considered that Amtrak is making the purchase now due to fear that the necessary funding wont’ be there in 2015?

    “Unfortunately for transit advocates, neither the Democrats nor the
    Republicans are making a serious effort to cajole Amtrak – or any
    federally-funded programs, really – into spending money more wisely.”

    Are you sure about that? Massive spending cuts have a way of forcing agencies to spend money more wisely by default. Think about the recent cuts to CDBG, for example.

  • rlb

    “An even more radical modernizing and cost-cutting measure (at least in
    the long run) would be to transition the Northeast Corridor Regional
    fleet from locomotive-hauled trains to electrical multiple units, or
    EMUs, in line with best practices in Europe and Asia.”

    Amtrak is unfamiliar with “long runs.” It is forced into perpetual sprints, hoping for another starting line just beyond the end of the current race.

  • The purchase is needed because Amtrak needed the locomotives 3 years ago not two years from now.  They are already starving for equipment.

  • 2015 is when the better locomotives would come into service, not when they’d be ordered. So there are two points here about how Amtrak could avoid funding uncertainty. First, it’s getting a loan from USDOT for the order rather than Congressional funding; in other words, the money is safe until November 2012. Second, it’s possible to expedite the PTC installation and get it done before 2015, in case it’s mission-critical to have the locos running by 2013; since it’s two years, Amtrak could even try to get a waiver, since the NEC doesn’t have much freight traffic, and could segregate it with time-sharing.

  • Who can we call to push back on this? Is there a petition at change.gov, or a list of reps and senators who might have authority over this?

  • JT

    Here’s hoping Mica doesn’t get elected again or better yet the Dems win in 2012 and he no longer would be the chairman of the House Transportation committee. Anybody in the know knows that Amtrak’s fleet has been around longer than they intended it to be. Also remember this is not Asia or Europe there they don’t share tracks like we do in the USA. The reason Amtrak is behind the rest of the world is because of JERKS like Rep. Mica who will not get my vote next election. Mr. Mica it’s time that the USA moves into the 21st century and not go back to the 19th century remember this Amtrak trains don’t consume the amout of fuel that that private jet does that you use.

  • JT

    Here’s hoping Mica doesn’t get elected again or better yet the Dems win in 2012 and he no longer would be the chairman of the House Transportation committee. Anybody in the know knows that Amtrak’s fleet has been around longer than they intended it to be. Also remember this is not Asia or Europe there they don’t share tracks like we do in the USA. The reason Amtrak is behind the rest of the world is because of JERKS like Rep. Mica who will not get my vote next election. Mr. Mica it’s time that the USA moves into the 21st century and not go back to the 19th century remember this Amtrak trains don’t consume the amout of fuel that that private jet does that you use.

  • Mightymikenice

    This website has lost all credibility with me.Anyone who quotes Alon Levy and acts like that foriegn fool knows what he is talking about is pathetic.

  • Rob Durchola

    It is my understanding (I could be wrong) that FRA regulations treat EMU passengers cars as if they were engines, requiring the more intensive/frequent maintenance inspections that engines require.  If this is correct, from an operations cost perspective, it is cheaper to have one engine pull non-powered passenger cars than to have powered passengers cars (EMUs).  As Alon Levy has written, part of the problem is FRA regulations.

  • Andy Chow

    Where does it say that if PTC is implemented then the FRA requirement no longer applies? The only waiver FRA has granted is to Caltrain in the SF Bay Area as a part of conversion from diesel to electric and where it has yet to begin construction. I am no fan on FRA regulations, but it is ridiculous to criticize Amtrak for not picking an option that’s not really available.

    American politicians’ attitude towards safety is absolute not relative, and that cost and inconvenience is secondary (look at airport security). They don’t feel FRA regs are safe enough, so they want PTC in addition to FRA. So if anyone thinks that Amtrak could hold off a few years to buy something radically different, get real.

  • First, Caltrain’s waiver is partly based on “We’ll get PTC anyway.”

    Second, one of Amtrak’s documents outlining what would later become the NEC Master Plan explicitly states that once the PTC mandate comes online, Amtrak will be able to use lighter Acela trains.

  • My understanding is a little different, but it might still not contradict yours. The FRA requires end cars to have very high buff strength, and intermediate cars somewhat less. I don’t think that powered vs. unpowered plays much of a role; the same rules apply to the leading and trailing cars. As a result, the Amtrak Cascades consists have to have a gutted locomotive in the back, which is used as a baggage car.

  • Hm…your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter!

  • kenny snider

    good news locomotive engine is very fast and powerful

    Pimsleur review

  • J. W. Forrer

    Positive train control isn’t going to help one bit with grade crossing incidents. The crews and some passengers don’t call cab cars without locomotives “coffin cars” for no reason.

    J. W. Forrer

  • Why would grade crossing accidents have anything to do with heavy FRA-compliant trains? Wouldn’t it be easier to stop a lighter UIC/Japanese spec train than an FRA-compliant tank-on-wheels?

  • Acela engines are heavier than crap. they have extra ballast to meet FRA rules. 

  • There’s a myth that FRA-compliant trains survive grade-crossing accidents better. The FRA doesn’t believe it – the waiver it gave Caltrain requires it to install PTC but not grade-separate. Caltrain’s train safety simulations don’t bear this myth out. And commuter lines all over the world have grade crossings, including some very busy ones like the Chuo Rapid Line, without this leading to accidents fatal to train occupants.

  • Stephen, just one nitpick: I didn’t say that “Amtrak could then save 35-50 percent off the cost of the locomotives.” I said that Amtrak’s locomotives cost 35-50 percent more than standard European designs, i.e. the standard European designs cost 25-33 percent less.

  • Guest

    “assault on its funding” = opposition to the continuation of enormous government subsidies.  One would think I self-proclaimed proponent of market-based transportation would understand why people feel this way, but apparently not.

  • Danny F

    “By 2015, Amtrak will no longer have to comply with the Federal Railroad
    Administration’s requirement that trains be able to withstand crashes
    with enormous freight trains.”

    Evidence, please? Has the FRA claimed this? If the FRA isn’t changing its regulations any time soon, it would be strange to expect Amtrak to delay needed rolling stock purchases based on a hope.

  • Factsareimportant

    I have never been more disappointed in the quality of this website.  There are so many inaccruate, misleading, and blatantly false statements in this article that I don’t have the time to address them all.  As an overarching theme, it would be great if the author had a concept of the difference between FRA and FTA, as well as any understanding of how Congress operates.  It’s a sa day for Streetsblog. 

  • Would you like to explain where I mixed up the FRA and the FTA…? The FRA regulates safety, the FTA administers Buy America.

  • The argument is as follows: the FRA has already accepted time-share as an alternative to high buff strength – e.g. RiverLine in South Jersey runs off-the-shelf Swiss DMUs in the day and freight trains at night. PTC with absolute accident protection is equivalent to time-share.

    I don’t know that the FRA has said this, but Amtrak has a document from 2009 asserting that by 2015 the PTC mandate will allow it to use much lighter trains.

  • By the way, here is the document in question. Or, if it doesn’t work, Google Amtrak Northeast Corridor Assessment.

  • Squatty HJ

    Paraphrased from comments on the Economist’s “Gulliver” blog:If Amtrak were going to wait for the FRA to change its
    regulations before it ordered new equipment, it might as well put in
    orders for space jets and transporter beams, because it could take
    hundreds of years. There is nothing high speed about the FRA. You want
    passenger rail to be more “cost-effective”? Get rid of 80% of the
    six-figure bureaucrats that are keeping the screws on decades-old
    requirements.

    And let’s talk about how Amtrak could be “spending money more wisely”, shall we?
    (I’m sure, as a blogger, you have spent a great deal of time
    prioritizing half-billion dollar capital programs, so forgive me if I
    stray cavalierly into your wheelhouse.) One thing you want to do when
    you have a business in the service industry is try to improve service;
    especially if, say, you have had year-on-year ridership increases for
    more than 18 months (some call this “a trend”). In order to improve
    service you could (a) order new equipment that (1) increases
    on-time-performance (2) decreases maintenance costs and lost time to
    maintenance, and (3) creates jobs now; OR you could (b) Dump a huge pot
    of money into Positive Train Control, EMUs, or some other new pursuit that will take more than twice as
    long before it is fully tested, fully installed, and fully regulated to
    the FRA’s liking and THEN put in an order for new equipment. (By the
    way: during that time, ten years has gone by and passengers are still
    depending on equipment that should have been mothballed twenty years
    ago.)
    Is it perfect? No. Certainly not. But keep in mind that we, as a
    nation, practically ignored passenger rail for twenty-five years after
    taking it over. Then we put it on life support. Investing in HSR and PTC
    and all that is good and important and should be done, but it is a sizable jump from where we are today. In the meantime, it’s not all
    academic. Our biggest mandate for passenger rail is that people have
    tickets for the train tomorrow.

     

  • Bob Johnston1111

    Both Stephen Smith and Alon Levy are living in a dream world, where they can talk “woulda, shoulda, coulda” without having to worry about what happens when Amtrak doesn’t have enough motive power to field its daily schedule because the work horse of the regional fleet, the AEM-7, is 31 years old. Two locomotives have caught fire over the past 3 months, the 911 and the 933, because parts have worn out despite a rigorous maintenance regimen by mechanics that have worked on these locos since they were new.
     
    It is disingenuous to imply negligence on Amtrak’s part simply because they aren’t waiting for the FRA to change crashworthiness standards, and preposterous to breathlessly claim that Electric Multiple Unit trains are always superior to locomotive-hauled trains. And Amtrak’s ACSES train control system is already as close to Positive Train Control as anything else likely to be developed over the next couple of years as a part of that unfunded mandate. “Wait for PTC?” Huh?
     
    The reality is that Amtrak’s primary corridor equipment, Amfleet, is also at the end of its useful life even after several rehabs, but there is no means of replacing over 400 1975-vintage cars in sight with EMU’s or anything else. Yet in June, mostly AEM-7/Amfleet trains’ ridership was up 9.8% over the same month the previous year (Acela Express ridership was up 4.1%). Revenue for the Regionals is up over 10%, but maintenance costs to keep these aging engines running increases every day. How many 1980 autos do you see rolling around?
     
    Waiting any longer for “something else” puts ridership and revenue more at risk than it already is. “Spending more wisely?” C’mon. Blogs like this provide exactly the kind of fact-adjusted fodder that those in Congress responsible for choking off passenger rail infrastructure investment over the last 40 years love to regurgitate, so it would be helpful to all of us interested in mobility that a balanced assessment is at least attempted. That didn’t happen here.

  • 1. ACSES is installed on only half the NEC, for now. The PTC mandate requires full installation by 2015, and as far as I can tell Amtrak is indeed moving there.

    2. If FRA-compliance is absolutely necessary, then piggyback on the M7 and M8 orders. The M8 is ready for high-voltage AC operation (a 12 kV car can be very easily modified to be a 25 kV car) and has the power-to-weight ratio of an ACS-64 hauling 8 Amfleets; the DC M7 is lighter, with power comparable to an ACS-64 hauling 7 Amfleets.

    3. The aforementioned LIRR trains are very low-maintenance, because the MTA has been spending the last 30 years improving rolling stock and reducing breakdown rates. Top speed is 160 km/h, but a) higher acceleration would allow the same average speed as 200 km/h loco-hauled trains, and b) uprating sufficiently powered trains from 160 to 200 is not a very difficult thing. If as Amtrak seems to believe the FRA rules will change come 2015 then it can instead order 700 Series Shinkansen trains, at almost the same cost per car as Viewliners; the Japanese are even more gung-ho about low-maintenance equipment than the MTA, though as a drawback the trains last only 20 years.

  • Andrew E Guthrie

    “An even more radical modernizing and cost-cutting measure (at least in
    the long run) would be to transition the Northeast Corridor Regional
    fleet from locomotive-hauled trains to electrical multiple units[…]”

    EMU’s are all well and good, but Amtrak would still need new electric locomotives, or a significant (read expensive) rebuild program for the unreliable HHP-8’s, to operate the numerous short-, medium- and long-distance trains that originate on the NEC and continue past the end of the electrification, changing to P42’s in DC, etc. With starvation-level funding, Amtrak has little choice but to order a locomotive that can handle any NEC train, even if it doesn’t handle one specific service as well as a less-versatile option.

  • EMU’s are great, I used to run them at NJ Transit…but the FRA requires a 92-day major inspection on every locomotive. Each powered car is treated as a locomotive, so a large portion of the fleet could be out of service at any given time, never mind the cost….which is the reason why NJT wants to eventually replace the MU’s with loco-hauled equipment. Not the best idea for commuter service, but in the end the dollar wins.

  • Marek

    Stephen Smith is an artful propagandist; skillfully weaving fear, uncertainly and doubt into the very existence of Amtrak while feeding the popular memes of all spending is bad and government is by nature incompetent.

    Grover Norquist must be proud!

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