Thursday, January 07, 2010

This Week In Amtrak

A JPBX (Caltrain) "Baby Bullet" MP36...Image via Wikipedia

This Week at Amtrak; December 17, 2009

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from

United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail •

Volume 6, Number 52

Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, New York, and other cities. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at

URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.

1) Sometimes, the information sneaks in through the backdoor, which is fine, as long as it comes in.

Courtesy of the United States House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, we have learned of Amtrak’s plans for new equipment.

The United States House of Representatives, in a rush to spend more public money, has presented H.R. 2847, THE “JOBS FOR MAIN STREET ACT, 2010” which it considers to be a jobs creation bill. There is all types of transportation monies in the bill, including scads of money for Amtrak.

Before you jump to any conclusions, this is a bill which is in progress, not a completed bill approved by both the House and Senate and sent to the president for signing. This is only a bill in progress, working its way through the legislative system.

But, what this bill does is give us a good glimpse into Amtrak’s wish list for new equipment.

Here’s what the bill has to say, pertaining only to Amtrak.

[Begin quote]


H.R. 2847, the Jobs for Main Street Act, 2010: Title I, Chapter 6 of H.R. 2847 provides $800 million to Amtrak for fleet modernization, including rehabilitation of existing equipment and acquisition of new equipment such as fuel-efficient locomotives. It also strengthens Amtrak’s Buy America requirement to encourage domestic manufacturing and rehabilitation of the equipment.

Amtrak’s equipment is aging; it is a major factor in delays. Some of Amtrak’s vehicles are more than 50 years old. The average life of a passenger rail car, depending on its usage, is 25 to 30 years. The lifespan of a locomotive is 20 to 25 years. Currently, Amtrak has 92 Heritage cars in service (which are 53 to 61 years old), 17 Metroliners (which are 42 years old), 412 Amfleet I cars (which are 32 to 35 years old), 122 Amfleet II cars (which are 28 to 29 years old), 249 Superliner I cars (which are 28 to 30 years old); 184 Superliner II cars (which are 13 to 15 years old), 97 Horizon cars (which are 19 to 20 years old), 50 Viewliners (which are 13 to 14 years old), 29 Talgo cars (which are 10 years old), 120 Acela cars (which are nine to 10 years old), and 41 Surfliners (which are seven to nine years old).

With respect to locomotives, Amtrak has 49 AEM-7 locomotives (which are 21 to 29 years old), 18 P32’s (which are 18 years old), 18 P32DM’s (which are 11 to 14 years old), 21 F59PHI’s (which are 11 years old), 15 HHP-8’s (which are eight to 10 years old), and 207 P42’s (which are eight to 13 years old).

Over the next five years and given adequate resources, Amtrak plans to purchase 396 new single-level vehicles for corridor service, which will replace about 95 percent of the Amfleet I vehicles; purchase 275 new single-level vehicles for long-haul service in an effort to remove all of the Heritage single-level cars and about 95 percent of the Amfleet II vehicles from service; purchase 160 new bi-level vehicles to replace 65 percent of the Superliner I cars; and purchase 100 new electric locomotives to replace the entire electric locomotive fleet. Amtrak also plans to acquire 54 new diesel locomotives, replacing 20 percent of its diesel fleet; and purchase five additional Acela trainsets and 41 new switch engines to replace the entire switcher fleet. Amtrak estimates that the effort requires capital funding of approximately $4.57 billion.

Recovery Act Implementation: The Recovery Act provided Amtrak with $1.3 billion for capital improvements. Of the $1.3 billion, Amtrak has awarded $623 million in contracts for 350 projects. This amount represents 48 percent of the total apportionment. Other major initiatives are planned, including infrastructure improvements (such as major bridges); and improvements to rights-of-way, facilities and other structures, information management systems, and communications and signal systems. Amtrak is also making capital improvements to stations and other facilities to meet requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act; various safety and security improvements, including purchasing police equipment; and replacing concrete ties.

[End quote]

Okay, while your True Believer buddy to the left of you is jumping up and down for joy at the information above, you, being a regular reader of This Week at Amtrak, and, therefore, exercise more bold caution when it comes to announcements from Amtrak or about Amtrak, take a more critical view of what you have just read.

You realize everything above only talks about REPLACING aging equipment; none of the hyperbole above actually talks about fleet EXPANSION.

In other words, Amtrak, if it gets the big bucks, only plans to replace its fleet, not expand its fleet. Using Amtrak’s usual bureaucratic thinking nonsense about always wanting perfect government-think scenarios because they are neat and tidy and don’t require any real thought, probably considers all of that older-hopefully-replaced equipment as upcoming surplus, to be sent to the scrap yard.

Amtrak still hasn’t learned its lesson from its chilly cousin to the north, VIA Rail Canada, which has the majority of its fleet’s equipment older than what Amtrak is using, and they cheerfully slap a new coat of paint on it, take out some of the dents, upgrade the electronics, and keep it going down the road with great dispatch, mostly because when Budd built the stuff in the 1950s, they built is the same way other companies built Sherman tanks: virtually indestructible.

But, no, that won’t do for Amtrak. Amtrak wants all-new, instead of new augmenting older for a blended fleet with different purposes. Heaven forbid Amtrak maintenance would have to be as clever as VIA Rail Canada maintenance.

So, yes, it’s nice to know Amtrak does have some plan tucked away somewhere for the future. Unfortunately, that plan doesn’t call for any expansion, or any improvements. It only calls for replacements.

Amtrak hasn’t figured out that wars are not won by just replacing dead soldiers; wars are won by determined surges making use of a combination of existing and new soldiers.

2) Did you notice the ad in the November 2009 issue of Railway Age Magazine?

It has the unglamorous title of “Request For Proposals: 10-PCJPB-T-025 For a Rail System Operator.” Did that make you start tingling all over? No? Well, here’s why it should.

The ad was placed by Caltrain, which operates the former Southern Pacific Railroad commuter service in and out of San Francisco and down the San Francisco Peninsula. Caltrain operates 98 trains per day, San Francisco-San Jose-Gilroy, with a total of 33 stations (including endpoint terminals). Included in the system is the famed Silicon Valley. The system has 77 miles of track with a top speed of 79 M.P.H. Caltrain carries on average, 39,000 passengers a day on weekdays.

This is not an inconsequential system; there are 29 locomotives and 110 passenger cars.

Let’s look at Amtrak in California; Amtrak’s biggest state cash cow. Amtrak takes in State of California (Caltrans) revenues for operating costs for the Capitols, San Joaquins, Pacific Surfliners, and, now Southern California’s Metrolink, in addition to its current operations deal for Caltrain.

Amtrak has been operating Caltrain on behalf of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (a longish and legally proper way of saying the old Southern Pacific San Francisco Peninsula commuter service) since 1992. Now, the contract is up, and Caltrain has advertised for a request for proposals.

Amtrak just lost the Virginia Railway Express on the Right Coast; what would happen if it lost Caltrain on the Left Coast?

With the addition of Southern California’s Metrolink, probably not much on the surface; the Amtrak bureaucracy in the West would just keep on marching.

Those with a sharp eye may notice Gilroy, California is on the Union Pacific main line which is traversed by Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. Gilroy slips right in the middle of the San Jose and Salinas station stops.

So, let’s speculate, just a bit, as an intellectual exercise.

Suppose Amtrak doesn’t keep the Caltrains contract; suppose some other service provider, such as Veolia Transportation, Herzog, or even the French company which is taking over VRE on the far side of the country successfully bid for and win the Caltrain contract.

And, then, suppose the Caltrain operator performs successfully, and pleases not only the folks at Caltrain, but also – more importantly – the folks at Caltrans, who are monthly writing big, big checks to Amtrak for operating the Pacific Surfliners, Capitols, and San Joaquins (Metrolink writes its own checks).

What if some renegade bureaucrat in Caltrans says, “well, Caltrain is doing so well, how can we expand that service?

“What would happen if, say, we took one or two of those Caltrain consists, and pushed them further south than Gilroy, perhaps all the way to Los Angeles?

“What would happen if Union Pacific Railroad liked the Caltrain operator better than Amtrak?

“What would happen, if say, well, gee, we just start turning over all of the Caltrans contracts to the Caltrain operator, instead of retaining Amtrak contract after contract?”

The answer is, Amtrak would suffer a horrible blow, and be crippled tremendously in the west. Amtrak would actually have real world competition. Amtrak would have to sing for its supper every night. Amtrak would really have to perform.

All of this, of course, comes under the heading “what if?”. But, it’s an intriguing “what if?”.

Amtrak for too long has taken most of its world for granted. It has even had the hubris of presuming it will be the preferred operator of the coming various high speed rail systems, even though it has not done well operating what it has today.

An article in today’s Daily Finance ( says Japan Central Railway has started putting together a proposal to be the sole builder and operator of America’s high speed rail system; everything from building track and infrastructure to building and operating trainsets. These are the same folks who operate the profitable bullet train franchise in Japan today.

The French and Germans want in on the USA action, too.

Amtrak may think it has the home field advantage, but it’s tough to see how, when there are much more successful worldwide competitors out there knocking on America’s door.

Veolia Transportation, which operates some sort of commuter rail or transit system in over 500 cities around the world (equivalent to Amtrak’s number of station stops in the national system) wants in on US high speed rail, too. They have the talent, and they have the financial clout to make it happen.

Will Amtrak understand in time what is swirling around it and potentially causing a lot of mayhem? Will Amtrak understand it has a long, long way to go to get its corporate house in order so it can fend off these much more successful international competitors? It’s going to take a lot more clout than Amtrak has today on Capitol Hill to keep things together. Amtrak needs to understand the world is not an exclusive Amworld.

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J. Bruce Richardson


United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203

Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739

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