Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Did Amtrak Buy Bad Trains for the Northeast Corridor?

Did Amtrak Buy Bad Trains for the Northeast Corridor?: "

The recent calls for government spending cuts haven’t stopped Ray LaHood from being in a pretty giving mood. Yesterday the Transportation Secretary awarded California $179 million for passenger rail. Most of that money — roughly $86 million — will go to the first segment of the state’s high-speed rail line, through the Central Valley, the cost of which may jump by billions after the release of a new environmental report.

But another $68 million will go toward what the department calls “next-generation American-made trains”; in this case, that means four locomotives and 15 bi-level rail cars. The equipment money is part of a larger, $336 million award announced last week. California will share the pot with four Midwestern states (Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri) that will use the remaining $268 million to purchase seven locomotives and 48 bi-levels.

That’s a lot of trains. But not nearly as many as LaHood secured for Amtrak in late June, when he issued America’s passenger rail operator a nearly $563 million loan for 70 locomotives to run in the Northeast Corridor. (Of the total loan sum, only about $466 million will go to the engines themselves, with the rest going toward maintenance and spare parts.) According to the department release, these high-performance, energy-efficient electric trains will be built by Siemens at several U.S. plants. LaHood hopes the trains can hit the tracks by 2013.

Sounds like a good thing, especially considered many Amtrak locomotives are decades old. But some aren’t so sure. At his Pedestrian Observations blog, regular Infrastructurist commenter Alon Levy argues that Amtrak is getting below-average trains at an above-average cost. Not only have similar locomotives recently sold in Europe for substantially less, writes Levy, but the new Amtrak fleet is being rushed into production just two years before an updated safety mandate goes into effect that will enable the purchase of lighter — and cheaper — trains.

Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism, now writing for Streetsblog, suggests that Amtrak should transition away from locomotives entirely in favor of electrical multiple units (EMUs), which are “in line with best practices in Europe and Asia”:

EMUs are, like subways in the US, individually-powered carriages, and standard models can be as cheap as the inflated price that Amtrak pays for its unpowered passenger railcars. The locomotive purchase locks Amtrak into buying more of these unpowered carriages in the future, making Amtrak’s decision to go with locomotives all the more important.

In other words, if Amtrak is to weather these fiscally lean times, it has to improve its ability to do more with less. Its alternatives are raising ticket prices or cutting service, which could hurt its healthy market share, or perhaps ceding control to the private sector, which has not worked well in the past.

Image: via Wikipedia

Eric Jaffe is on Twitter


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