ESPA Express: Jan-Feb 2013
Turboliners Meet Their Sad End: Sold for Scrap
The State of New York finally rid itself of the four infamous RTL Turboliner train-sets from the failed high-speed rail program of the Pataki Administration, on December 13th, 2012.
The Office of General Services had discovered them earlier in 2012, and at a May 31st press conference Howard Glaser the Director of State Operations told the assembled state capitol press corps that the government was going to sell the four train-sets and a warehouse of parts and machinery sooner rather than later.
The state government had been paying the Rotterdam Industrial Park and the Glenville Business and Technology Park $153,000 annually to store the trains and their associated parts since 2005.
There were actually seven Turboliner sets in total, but three fully rebuilt train-sets have been held by Amtrak at their Bear Maintenance Facility in Delaware since 2004, their fate is up to Amtrak as agreed to in a 2007 lawsuit settlement between Amtrak and New York State.
The high-speed rail program announced in a 1998 press conference by Gov. George Pataki and Amtrak officials started to fall apart in December 2003. Amtrak under the leadership of its new president David L. Gunn reneged on its promise of undertaking the $140 million in track work necessary for 125-mph running between Schenectady and New York City.
Amtrak under siege from the Bush Administration was in desperate financial straits and simply did not have the money.
Meanwhile Super Steel Schenectady, the rail manufacturer that had won the $74 million contract to rebuild the seven RTL Turboliners sets into “RTL-III” sets had fallen far behind schedule. A report by the New York State Comptroller faulted both Super Steel and NYSDOT for mismanagement of the project.
Amtrak in June 2004 removed from revenue service the two operating of the three rebuilt RTL-III sets citing poor air conditioning, insufficient seating capacity, and high fuel costs. NYSDOT then instructed Super Steel to stop work on remaining four sets in progress and sued Amtrak for failing to live up to its contractual commitments.
Amtrak in September 2004 then moved the three completed RTL‐III sets to their Bear Shops, leading then NYSDOT Commissioner Joe Boardman (now Amtrak president) to accuse Amtrak of "stealing my trains".
Super Steel in May 2005 was paid $5.5 million by NYSDOT to end the Turboliner rebuilding project, in addition to the $64.8 million already received by the company for the project. Super Steel the Milwaukee based parent company closed down its Super Steel Schenectady subsidiary in April 2009.
NYSDOT and Amtrak in December 2007 settle the lawsuit with the railroad agreeing to pay the state $20 million in damages. Both the parties agreed to commit $10 million each in future track improvements and share the proceeds of any future sale of the train-sets.
This brings us to a cold yet beautiful December morning as the rising sun bathed the frost coated derelict Turboliners in pink and yellow light.
Resting on a parallel set of tracks across a large field from the former buildings of Super Steel at the far end of the Glenville Business and Technology Park, in various states of rebuilding, some shrouded beneath white canvas, all with orange auction lot numbers sprayed painted on each car, they awaited their fate.
It was settle in less than 20 minutes as auctioneers Scott Perry & Company from a pope mobile sold the four train-sets to the two winning bidders before a gathering of two dozen people. The trains brought in $212,000 with the 12 coaches being sold to Metro Recycling of Watervliet for $7,000 each while the 8 power-cars were old to NH Kelman Scrap Recycling of Cohoes for $16,000 each.
In total $420,000 was recouped by the state including $139,000 from the auction on December 11th at the warehouse and the $69,000 that was sold over eBay in the months before. The auction Tuesday at Building 533 of the Rotterdam Industrial Park included 408 separate lots that took the entire day to be sold off.
Like an enormous garage sale the auctioneers had laid out around the warehouse a hodgepodge of items soaked by a cold rain, and the capacious amount that still remained dry inside resembled the last scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A sample of what was sold included …. Lot #1: Iron Bell sold for $100… Lot #24: 2 drive shafts sold for $150… Lot #77: 3 train couplers sold for $300… Lot #155: 13 skids of metal, window frames, insulations, gaskets, iron, and Exxon Mobil Turbo Oil sold for $400… Lot #230 Approx. 48 air turbine propeller blades sold for $300.
“They weren’t doing the taxpayers any good here” stated Heather Groll a spokeswomen for General Services… “We sold everything”.
To Time Warner YNN News Jason Kelman stated that he bought the cars… "For the recyclable material. Simply put. This is not rocket science. You buy the weight, you sell by the weight. The train sold at a value that was worth recycling”.
The scrappers told the Gazette that they expected that in two weeks they could dismantle the train-sets, NH Kelman said that they would need two cranes and four men to torch apart cars so that dump trucks could haul away the scrap. It was estimated that there was 75 to 110 tons of metal in each car.
An employee of Scott Perry & Company said that the man who bought for $12,900 the one hundred steel wheels at Tuesday’s auction intended to scrap them, imported from Spain they apparently are not compatible with other American railroad rolling-stock.
Some of the refurbished turbine engines may yet however see a second life. The auction company employee said that the man who had bought the large Voith Turbo Power Transmissions on Tuesday for $800 to $1000 each was going to try to sell the fully rebuilt units.
The most forlorn sight was that of the never rebuilt Turboliner train-set that was actually rebuilt by Amtrak at the cost of $2 million in the mid-1990s as part of the Clinton Administration’s high-speed rail effort.
Sitting in the far southwestern corner of the Glenville Industrial Park the train-set had been allowed to slowly decay in place. One of its streamline power cars had fresh graffiti with broken glass scattered in its forward cab. The train’s interior was littered with moldy Amtrak magazines and napkins left behind after its last revenue run.
Designated a “RTL II” the train-set in a series of tests by USDOT in 1995 between Albany and Hudson, NY and on the Northeast Corridor reached speeds of 125-mph and higher. Its engines had been rebuilt with the interiors renovated and a new paint scheme was applied.
The RTL-II’s overall performance equaled expectations and after testing was placed into in revenue service between Albany and Penn Station. In 2002 long after the other Turboliner sets had been removed from service after several engine fires in the mid-1990s, it too made its last run.
The auction in Glenville was a bittersweet moment for Tom Romano a former Super Steel worker who came that morning to have a last look at the trains he had worked on for so many years.
This parting included one last walk through the RTL-II Turboliner. From the cab at one end to the cab at the opposite end, through the coaches and café car he walked, every step bringing back memories.
Interestingly while it was hard on Tuesday to make out how the multifarious parts in the warehouse fitted into a train, on Thursday one could see how all the parts from sliding doors to air compressors fit together to create a completed train.
The mystery of where the trains iron bells went was solved. On the rebuilt power cars most of the iron bells still hung below the cabs and a person could reach under and ring the bell, the rapid movement of the clapper readily created the sound a train approaching a grade crossing.
Mr. Romano brought a small photo album of his time at Super Steel which he shared with the scrappers and reporters that had gathered at the auction. Most ironically was a photo of George Pataki exiting a newly rebuilt Turboliner cab in front of a crowd of workers and dignitaries.
A lot of problems occurred during the rebuilding and Romano mused that it might have been easier to have simply built new trains from scratch. These problems took time to solve, and most importantly Romano said that it seemed that the “customer (Amtrak) didn’t really want them”.
While they may have ended up as a farce, the Turboliners actually had a long and successful career of two decades before the botched Pataki high-speed rail project.
Originally built in the mid-1970s by a California aerospace company the Rohr RTLs literally brought the space age to the rails, the streamlined light-weight trains being propelled by two aeronautical jet turbine engines in the power cars at each end.
Amtrak brought its new cutting edge high-speed trains to the Empire Corridor where they benefited from a major upgrade of rail infrastructure undertaken by New York State after the passage of the Rail Preservation Act of 1974 which set forth $250 million in bonds for railroad improvements.
The travel time New York-Albany was cut from 3 hrs to 2 hrs 11 mins and ridership for the Empire Corridor increased from 7I3,576 in 1974 to 1,250,068 in 1983.
The Turboliners should be remember as much for their early success as for their final inglorious failure.
Benjamin J. Turon