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HomeU.S.After Years of Delays, Amtrak Moves Toward Faster Trains in the Northeast

After Years of Delays, Amtrak Moves Toward Faster Trains in the Northeast

After years of delays and security and design controversies, Amtrak is taking another step closer to introducing new high-speed trains in the busy Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak officials announced late Friday that the new trains, which had faced setbacks in an extensive series of computer modeling tests, had passed on their 14th attempt. Federal Railroad Administration approval was granted to begin testing on the tracks running from Washington, D.C., to Boston.

Swift, Larger Trains Worth Nearly $1.6 Billion: A New Travel Experience

These fast, larger trains – comprising locomotives and passenger cars – come with a hefty price tag of almost $1.6 billion and aim to replace those that should have been retired at the end of their life cycle in 2016.

The sleek new Liberty trains, in shades of crimson, white, and navy, are designed to travel at speeds of around 160 miles per hour, surpassing the current Acela trains by 10 mph, with hopes of smoother and more convenient rides around bends. Accommodating 386 passengers, they represent a 25% increase.

Amtrak stated in a release, “Testing on the tracks will be the next step in the safety certification process that will lead to commencing revenue service.”

French Manufacturer Alstom: On-Track Testing Commended as Progress

Cliff Cole, spokesperson for the French manufacturer Alstom producing the new trains, praised the on-track testing as a progress milestone for passengers who will soon experience an entirely new journey on America’s busiest rail corridor.

However, this project, running three years behind the set schedule, has faced significant challenges, with no clear indication from Amtrak about when the trains will be ready for passengers. According to a previous inspector’s report, the goal was to launch the new trains into service by October 2024.

Challenges and Setbacks: Overcoming Hurdles for High-Speed Rail

Alstom, responsible for manufacturing trains in Hornell, N.Y., has only delivered 10 out of 28 trains that were contracted for completion in 2021. Currently, they sit idle at the Pennsylvania Train Yard, visible to Amtrak travelers in and out of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

In the interim, Amtrak has spent over $48 million on maintenance to keep the aging Acela trains running. In 2016, there were high hopes when then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Anthony R. Coscia, then chairman of Amtrak, stood outside Wilmington, Del., announcing a federal loan of $2.45 billion for bringing high-speed train travel to the Northeast.

Terms of the Contract: Challenges in Safety Certification

Under the terms of the contract, Alstom had to create a computer model to predict their performance before starting the construction of the trains – a crucial condition. It demonstrated to the Federal Railroad Administration, responsible for enforcing rail safety regulations, that testing on the Northeast Corridor tracks is safe before initiating the examination.

The corridor’s curves, bridges, and tunnels presented a unique challenge for Alstom. It’s estimated that over $100 billion will be required for the maintenance and enhancement of the region’s tracks to bring the new trains to their maximum speed throughout the corridor.

By 2019, the company was entangled in difficulties. According to Amtrak officials and Alstom representatives, the train manufacturer informed Amtrak that computer modeling revealed the new trains couldn’t operate safely on the Northeast Corridor tracks. Nonetheless, Alstom stated it could address the issues and wanted to move forward.

Despite the challenges with computer modeling, Amtrak granted Alstom permission to proceed with train construction, as Amtrak officials stated they believed there were no other viable options. Recently, Amtrak officials acknowledged that they failed in securing safety measures in the contract with Alstom to develop working trains for the struggling rail service.

“I think there’s now a debate after this fact about whether this should have been a contractual mechanism or not,” said Laura Mason, Amtrak’s executive vice president for finance.

By January 2020, a report from an Amtrak inspector warned of consistent delays and safety issues with the trains, as another inspector reported in September 2023. In a recent unpublished version of that report obtained by The New York Times, inspectors found that railroads were still failing in modeling tests, and those that had been created so far had deficiencies. Although the issues can be addressed, the report suggested that some trains need “structural and design modifications,” while others require “seals, drainage improvements, or warping fixes.”

Jim Mathews, CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, a advocacy group, said that as both Amtrak and Alstom move forward with testing trains on tracks, they will pay close attention to the intricacies of tilting technology and how it assists trains at high speeds.

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