Eastern long-distance trains to be (almost) fully reequipped

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Amtrak recently released revisions to its plans for replacing its aging fleet of cars and locomotives, first announced in 2010. Buried in those 89 pages (read them yourself by going here) is what we scribblers like to call breaking news. Let me begin with the bad news: You folks living between Maine and Virginia will have to put up with those icky Amfleet I cars a few years longer than you wished. Amtrak has postponed their replacement for several years, and some of these 444 traveling coffins (very little light enters their teeny windows) will be 51 years old before the last one is laid to rest in 2028.
 
And why is their retirement being postponed? That brings me to the good news: In the works is an almost complete modernization of the single-level long-distance trains: the Cardinal, Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, Palmetto, Silver Meteor and Silver Star. All but the Palmetto carry Viewliner sleeping cars, which are a relatively young age 16. Already ordered are new sleeping, dining, crew dormitory, and baggage cars, totaling 130 in all. To be built by CAF USA, they’ll come on line starting 18 months from now, with deliveries continuing into 2014.
 
Amtrak reveals in its new report a decision to finish the job by replacing the 145 30-year-old Amfleet II coaches assigned to these long-distance trains. (Amfleet II cars are distinguishable from their Amfleet I cousins by their taller windows and more-spacious seating.) As the report explains: “The Amfleet I equipment had been targeted as the next fleet for replacement. The Amfleet II equipment is newer, but it has substantially higher mileage. Amfleet II replacement will allow creation of a more homogeneous single level long distance fleet.” So for that reason, Northeast Direct trains will keep their Amfleet I cars until next-generation cars begin arriving, at the rate of about 65 per year, in 2018.
 
If you ridden the long-distance trains in the East lately, you will probably agree that they are pretty tired creatures. Dining cars are relics whose cooks and waiters impinge on sleeping car availability because Amtrak has scrapped all its baggage-dormitories. The tubular Amfleet II coaches show their age, too. The modernization of these trains should result in dramatic improvement in ambiance and comfort levels for passengers. Moreover, those 25 additional Viewliner sleepers to the 50 already in service, coupled with new baggage-dormitories for the on-board crew, will provide more than 50 percent greater sleeping-car room availability, enough to add a sleeper to each train and maybe two in a few instances.
 
Left out of the fleet plan is any mention of lounge cars to replace the Amfleet table cars now in use on long-distance trains. Amtrak would be wise to either redesign their interiors to create a more convivial atmosphere, or tack an order for new lounge cars onto the CAF USA contract.
 
Other news from the report:
 
Amtrak is considering replacing single-level equipment used on short-distance services radiating out of Chicago with bilevel cars similar to the California-owned cars used in the Golden State. This could be done by coupling an Amtrak order to one the California Department of Transportation plans to pursue soon, permitting 125 bilevel cars to replace 155 single-level Amfleet and Horizon cars now based in Chicago. The Heartland Flyer between Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City is another candidate for these bilevels, freeing Superliner cars for long-distance use.
 
A delightful feature for sleeping car passengers on the Coast Starlight is the Pacific Parlour Car. The service is provided by five 1955-era high-level cars built for Santa Fe’s El Capitan. In this era they are prime candidates for the scrapyard. But the fleet reports suggests they will remain around at least another half-dozen years, and when they go to Valhalla, be replaced by new equipment. Pacific Parlors are the only cars on Amtrak reserved for use by first-class passengers.
 
Amtrak has concluded that the payback in revenue from adding two coaches to the existing four on six-car Acela trainsets between Boston and Washington is compelling. Even if only in service 10 years, until 2023, when replacement of the 20-set Acela fleet is scheduled to be completed, they would “deliver a positive return” on the $4 million-per-car cost. Moreover, Amtrak offers the possibility, as early as 2017, of Acelas operating on 30-minute rather than hourly headways by putting into service 20 additional trainsets.
 
The battle royal among locomotive makers will occur next year, when Amtrak intends to begin ordering replacements for its diesels, primarily the 200 General Electric-built P42s. This is business GE aims to retain. But GE will have to compete with a re-energized, Caterpillar-owned Electro-Motive Diesel, whose CEO, Billy Ainsworth, is determined to get back into the passenger locomotive business, come what may. And also in the fray is MotivePower, owned by Wabtec, which is cranking out diesels for the commuter railroads.
 
You’re entitled to wonder whether this is all pie in the sky. I have an answer. People wonder what Joe Boardman did the first 18-24 months of his Amtrak presidency. We didn’t see much of him. Turns out he was, among other things, deeply involved in a number of planning initiatives. Since the first fleet-replacement plan came out a year ago, Boardman has steadily implemented its recommendations, beginning with those single-level cars, electric locomotives for the Northeast Corridor, and the additional Acela coaches. In other words, he has delivered, on time. So draw your own conclusions. — Fred W. Frailey

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