Amfleet enters its own classic era

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Amfleet cars in Northeast Corridor train 169 were less than 5 years old when they followed a GG1 south out of Philadelphia in 1980. Now, three examples of the durable design have entered preservation. Robert S. McGonigal
You know the world is shifting below your feet when, one after the other, the routine or the mundane hangs around long enough to become what we all call “classic.” 

Case in point: Amtrak’s Amfleet. Recently it was announced that Rail Excursion Management Co., which manages a fleet of private cars for the excursion and heritage railroad biz, has acquired two Amfleet coaches and an Amcafé. The company is said to be the first private operator to acquire examples of these cars.

As someone who has logged many thousands of miles looking out those narrow rifle-slot windows, I have to admit this took me by surprise. “Amfleet? Classic?” But why not? The original Amfleet I cars are 45 years old, far longer in the tooth than the streamlined postwar counterparts they began replacing back in the mid-1970s. The original 492 Amfleet cars were delivered by the Budd Company during 1975–77; reinforcements in the form of 150 Amfleet II cars for longer-haul service were built 1980–83. Several hundred remain in Amtrak service.

Amfleet’s arrival back in 1975 was a watershed for Amtrak, although the rollout was remarkably low key. Beyond their sleek if utilitarian design — like everything Budd did, they were covered in gleaming, Shot-welded stainless steel — the cars had a central advantage: the use of electric heat and air conditioning via head-end power from the locomotive. They brought an end to Amtrak’s creaky old steam-heated fleet and made “HEP” a part of our lexicon. 

One of the first detailed analyses of the new Amfleet came from J. David Ingles, then associate editor for Trains, who rode train 304 (pulled by a GE P30!) out of St. Louis and filed a report called “Assessing the Amcoaches” in the April 1976 issue. 

An Amcoach shell gleams under construction on the shop floor of Budd's Red Lion plant. Budd Company
Dave noted the similarities between the Amcoaches he rode and the 1968-era Metroliner cars on which their design was based, commented that the interior reminded him of the first-class section of a DC-9, questioned whether the tinted Lexan windows would be as effective against the summer sun as a good old-fashioned window shade, and noted that the vestibule steps were quite steep. “I wish that someone out East would realize that high-level platforms end at Washington, D.C.” But his conclusions were mostly positive.

“All in all, I give the Amcoaches good grades,” he wrote, “and I overheard numerous positive comments aboard them en route.”

The cars still have plenty going for them, says Rail Excursion CEO Adam Auxier, especially in comparison with older equipment. “All the cars will be rebuilt and sent off for excursion duty. They offer creature comforts that modern families demand, like durable air conditioning, power outlets at every seat, and indestructible bathrooms. They have 60kW of heating capacity for crying out loud!”

The cars are Amcoaches 82990 and 82524 and Amcafe 85501. All three came out of Budd’s plant on Red Lion Road in northeast Philadelphia in July 1976. Interestingly, the interior of the café had been refitted to look like that of an Acela car, an experiment that appears to be limited to just the one car.Rail Excursions says its new acquisitions will be moved from an Amtrak facility on the East Coast and promptly put to work on a midwestern tourist line. 

As for those who dismiss Amfleet equipment as humdrum, or worse, Auxier will have none of it. 

With their airliner-style interiors, Amtrak's Amfleet cars put a new face on rail travel in the 1970s. Amtrak
“Like many, my first train ride was aboard an Amfleet coach and I believe their importance has been completely missed in the railfan community,” he says. “Amfleet was part of Amtrak's success story in regaining riders, moving past its fleet of worn out equipment, and challenging the airlines. We have gotten our share of ‘AmCan’ comments, but those have generally been made by those who have failed to acknowledge their value. These cars were durable, stylish and iconic. Canada had the LRC, the UK the HST, and we got the Amfleet.” 

For some additional insight, I turned to Kevin McKinney, who in 1976 had come off a stint in Amtrak management to help set passenger-train strategy for the Michigan DOT. He was also the publisher of Passenger Train Journal, for which he remains a columnist. All those hats he was wearing give McKinney a unique perspective.   

“When Amfleet first entered service, I had mixed feelings,” he says. “It was great that new equipment was arriving, but tubular cars with small windows [were] not so attractive. Amfleet II was an improvement and as time went by, we began to appreciate how the hundreds of Budd-built cars literally saved Amtrak. With years of capital starvation, those Budd cars, built to last forever, needed to run forever.”

We’re a long way from “forever,” but the sale of three cars to Rail Excursions, and the unbridled faith Adam Auxier places in them, says a lot about the quality Budd and its workers at Red Lion put into them all those years ago. 

 

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