Thursday, April 28, 2011

This Week in Amtrak

(Amtrak 345, an EMD F40PH pulls a passenger tr...Image via Wikipedia
Volume 8, Number 7

From the Editors…

Recently, Amtrak released its updated fleet strategy plan. What a difference a year makes.

A Tale of Two Strategies

At first blush, it would appear the primary difference between Amtrak’s Fleet Strategies of February 2010 and February 2011 is a thorough going over by our very own proofreader here at This Week. (For the record, she vehemently denies this, but the investigation is on-going.) Upon closer inspection, it becomes obvious certain realities are now being accepted. Before going any further it should be known that the original document and its update are of a high quality and represent the obvious expenditure of many hours of effort.

The updated report acknowledges the orders of 130 single-level cars for Eastern long distance service and 70 electrics for the Northeast Corridor. Priorities held over from 2010 are the replacement of 250 Superliner I's and the development of “a new fuel-efficient high speed diesel locomotive.” New to the priority list are: Replacement of 145 Amfleet II's, developing a “bi-level corridor car to replace single-level cars where clearances permit, adding two cars each to the existing Acela fleet (40 new cars total), and planning the next generation of high-speed trains. Total estimated cost of this 30 year plan is $25.2 billion.

Replacement of the single-level long distance coaches, Amfleet II, has now been moved ahead of the Amfleet I replacement. Why? Despite being a few years newer, the average mileage for an Amfleet II car is 1.4 million miles over an Amfleet I. Truth be told, the Amfleet design was never meant for long-distance service, yet they have performed adequately for over 30 years; a true testament to the construction of the Budd Company. CAF USA has a very tough act to follow, constructing the 130-piece Viewliner 2 order. There are 145 Amfleet II’s in service but the Fleet Strategy does not specify how many new cars will be ordered. If CAF USA gets a chance to build a coach variant of the Viewliner 2 platform, then we could possibly see uniform trainsets in the east, something which has not happened since the introduction of the Amfleet II’s in 1980. Do you believe in miracles?

In 2010, “long distance” services were defined as “more than 600 miles,” whereas in 2011 it is “more than 750 miles.” No doubt this is a sign of inflation. Also curious is the statement that the long-distance trains “have grown around 2 percent annually,” although “Table 8: Amtrak Ridership Growth FY06-10” demonstrates that long-distance trains were the only service during those five years not to have a negative ridership growth; even during the doldrums of 2009. Average growth on the long-distance trains according to Amtrak’s data was 3.7 percent for the last five years, a fact all the more fascinating when one takes into account there has been no addition to the equipment of these trains in over a decade.

A significant difference between the two reports is the acknowledgment of Amtrak’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The OIG is evaluating the original report, and will issue its own report this year. “We look forward to receiving the final OIG report and we will continue to work with the OIG to ensure that its insights are incorporated in the next fleet plan update as appropriate.” Where was the OIG during the original report? Oh, right.

In both reports the Horizon fleet of regional-distance cars is panned: “These cars suffer from a variety of operational problems in cold temperatures and winter conditions.” Interestingly these cars are a variant of an original Pullman-Standard commuter car design which has gained acceptance in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, none of which are known for their balmy winters. The solution for 2011 is a new fleet of 125 bi-level cars ostensibly patterned after the cars used in regional service in California. As these cars do not have any operating history in the extremes of the Midwest, this will be an interesting experiment. Although the “California cars” appear to be similar to Superliners, the difference is in the details. Superliners have their Head End Power (HEP) and Multiple Unit (MU) cables well above the ground and away from snow and ice buildups. California cars have their cables astride their couplers, as is standard with most other equipment. Superliners have successfully pinch hit for Horizon cars in Midwest services during wintertime. If one expects California cars to perform to the same level as the Superliners, one may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

One other curious statement as regards the potential routes for the new bi-level cars: “The only other exception would be Amtrak’s Hoosier State/Cardinal Service between Chicago and Indianapolis, which would continue to use single level equipment because of clearance constraints on the Cardinal route.” Trains between Chicago and Indianapolis have always ferried equipment to and from Beech Grove, Amtrak’s maintenance facility just outside Indianapolis. The deadheading equipment does include cars from Amtrak’s current bi-level fleet: Superliners, Superliner II’s and California cars.

The plans for Acela were wide and varied in 2010. By 2011, the choices have been narrowed: “There is a compelling case for an additional two cars for each set… [the extra cars] will deliver a positive return even if the trains were replaced in 2023.” Moreover, the desire is expressed for an additional 20 trainsets “of a new rather than the existing design and delivery would begin in 2017.” Apparently they have learned one lesson.

Unfortunately, both reports address the potential utility of self-propelled diesel cars or Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs). Not that there is anything wrong with DMUs in and of themselves; however, they are best suited to commuter operations. Amtrak is NOT a commuter railroad, and provides operating crews under contract to a handful of commuter operations around the country. If one of these commuter lines provides DMUs for its operation, so be it; but Amtrak should not be taking the lead on this.

It is recognized in the reports that: “Suppliers need a constant stream of work to ensure that there is sufficient business to support a competitive supplier base and avoid the boom and bust cycles in the past.” This work-fare program of equipment sustainability is the sort of thing a state-owned/operated polity should have pursued since its inception. Well, better late than never. The plan calls for an average of 65 single-level and 35 bi-level cars per year starting in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

Both reports speak of the need for the development of future equipment. The 2011 edition refers to the Next Generation Equipment Committee (NGEC), whose stated goal is “to promote the creation of a pool of standardized, interoperable equipment that could be used by Amtrak and the states in various state-sponsored corridors with flexibility and efficiency.” In light of Amtrak’s past history of equipment, standardization would be a vast improvement. This is, however, a double-edged sword. Such a mandate would mean ostracizing non-standard equipment such as the state-owned Talgo trainsets in Cascade and Hiawatha services. Standardization to the exclusion of innovation has a history of long-term negative consequences. Fifteen years ago, ABB Traction withdrew its product, the X2000, from contention for use in the NEC. The X2000 achieved higher speeds on conventional track through the use of radial steering trucks and active tilting. Since no other bidder could offer radial trucks, it was not included in the Federal bid request, and ABB realized it could not succeed in the face of cheaper, inferior products.

Perhaps the largest sign of change is what was not held over from the original report, the “Calculation of required added cars per set” toward the back of the report. Originally hypothesized were the train consists as they might appear for FY18 and FY23. When first released in 2010, it was these charts which caused many a confused look even from the most ardent Amtrak apologists. For 2018, 10 of the 14 long distance trains would receive one extra sleeping car. By 2023, four more trains would have added one more sleeper; yet this very same chart reports the 2008 load factors for the sleepers, and none are below 80%. Two trains are tied at 94 percent. None of Amtrak’s regional or corridor offerings even come close to matching this load factor. It is also no secret that fares for traveling by sleeping car are especially dear. Even so, sleeping cars are what the traveling public craves. Why? There could be many postulated reasons: An aging population, TSA fatigue, etc. We at This Week do not know the true reason for this trend, but it really is academic. The public has voted with its wallet, demanding sleeping car space.

Through Amtrak’s typical “framing mischief by decree,” it has made it abundantly clear that it is loathe to reinstate trains such as the Pioneer, North Coast Hiawatha, or Eastern leg of the Sunset Limited. Even so, it does acknowledge the growth in long-distance demand. “This gradual increase in demand can be satisfied through the progressive replacement of equipment and lengthening of existing train consists.” Limiting the increase, however, of already paltry long-distance trains by a mere one or two cars just does not correspond with reality. Long-term success of any business requires change, to support changing demand. In the past, the speed at which Amtrak responded to such change was glacial, at best. Amtrak has not received any new equipment since 2002. It may already be too late. After 40 years, it should be getting it right. If not, then perhaps it is really time to let someone or something else have a turn.
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