In the last month, Amtrak decided not to purchase additional Acela cars, but instead replace the Acela fleet ahead of time, and try to buy trains that aren’t compliant with FRA regulations. More recently, Amtrak and the California HSR Authority decided to bundle their orders together. The latter decision drew plenty of criticism from some good transit advocates, such as Clem Tillier, and even the former decision did. Clem explained,
The whole notion of buying quicker trains for the NEC is ridiculous– the existing Acela Express trains have plenty of oomph (16 kW/tonne) to do anything they need to do. “Lighter” and “faster” isn’t the key to anything on the NEC, and dropping in a higher-performance train will not lead to material trip time improvements. They need to speed up the slow bits first, which isn’t something you do by blowing money on trains.
Clem’s criticism got a fair amount of flak in comments, from me and others, for underestimating how important getting around FRA regulations is. What nobody said in comments, and I only realized after the discussion died out, is how the choice of rolling stock depends heavily on what Amtrak plans to do with infrastructure and service planning in the Northeast. It doesn’t make sense in any case to tether Amtrak’s plans for a corridor that’s in many ways globally unique to the California HSR Authority’s for a fairly standard HSR implementation. But what rolling stock is required, and thus how bad the tethering is, depends on a concrete plan for infrastructure and schedule.
At the highest level, the unique issue with the Northeast Corridor is that significant parts can’t be feasibly upgraded to more than 200-250 km/h or easily bypassed, while others can. This means that there’s a tradeoff between top speed and cant deficiency, and the optimal choice depends on how much investment there is into speeding up segments. In any case it’s critical to improve station throats, interlockings, and railroad junctions, but after the 50 and 100 km/h zones are dealt with, the remaining questions are still nontrivial.
The more money is invested, the less it makes sense to run a 270 mm-cant deficiency, 250 km/h Pendolino, and the more it makes sense to run a Talgo AVRIL or E5/E6, both of which are capable of 350 km/h but only about 180 mm of cant deficiency (or N700-I, which is on paper capable of 330 km/h and about 135 mm and in practice could probably be run at 360 km/h and 175 mm). If there’s one segment that tilts the decision, it’s New Haven-Providence: using the legacy Shore Line, even with heavy upgrades, limits speeds and favors high cant deficiency, while bypassing it on I-95 favors high top speeds. But even the New York-Washington segment of today has a few curves strategically located at the worst locations, which make higher tilt degree a benefit.
In medium-speed territory, the Pendolino versus E5/AVRIL/N700-I decision is the muddiest. I ran rough simulations on an upgraded New Haven Line, with bypasses including those I advocated as a first step but also additional ones in the more difficult Stamford-New Haven segment. A train with E5 cant deficiency and N700-I acceleration did New York-New Haven in 32 minutes, and a Pendolino with all cars powered did it in 30. Neither is a standard trainset, though the former is very close to standard (and the Talgo AVRIL is also quite close). The Pendolino as it is, with about half the cars powered, has low power by HSR standards, and this is a problem for accelerating back from a slow zone at medium speed. With all cars powered (which is feasible, at higher acquisition cost) it’s still far from turbocharged, but can change speed more easily. An off-the-shelf Pendolino would not beat an E5 or AVRIL or N700-I on such a corridor, and of course would not beat it south of New York or north of New Haven.
Since nonstandard trains cost more, it’s important to also decide whether they’re worth the cost. Bearing in mind that Amtrak said a new noncompliant trainset costs $35-55 million, which is above the range for 8-car trains (China pays about $4 million per 350+ km/h car), so it may already be factoring in a premium, paying more for trains is worth it whenever the benefits to passengers are noticeable enough. This, like choosing very high-speed rolling stock rather than a Pendolino, is the most effective at high levels of infrastructure investment. An off-the-shelf Pendolino is good enough for most applications. So is an off-the-shelf N700-I without tilt. It’s okay to be 15 minutes slower than the cutting edge if the cutting edge is too expensive. But the effect of 15 minutes on ridership is more pronounced if it’s the difference between 1:35 and 1:50 than if it’s the difference between 3:00 and 3:15. In addition, the faster the service is, the more revenue each train earns, and this allows spreading the extra acquisition cost among more passengers.
Another factor that’s neglected, at least in public statements, is the service plan. Amtrak service is heavily padded: the fastest northbound Acela is scheduled to do Providence-Boston in 47 minutes, but in the opposite direction it’s 34. Remove the Route 128 stop and this can get close to 30 or even below it. About the fastest trains can go with no schedule padding is 19.25 minutes, and reasonable but not onerous padding raises it to about 20.5. Clearly, more of the difference comes from operating efficiencies than from any speed raising; the Acela already goes 240 km/h between Providence and Boston and already has about 180 mm (7″) cant deficiency.
The limiting factor here is more MBTA ownership and operating culture. A good service plan would make it clear how trains can share the corridor (and the same is true on the New Haven Line, another unduly slowed commuter-owned segment), and because MBTA trains are so slow, any cooperation would involve public statements regarding upgrades to the MBTA. The Acela has level boarding at every stop except New London, which is the easiest to cut out and should be bypassed together with the rest of Shore Line East. It’s the MBTA that has non-level boarding, which remains one of the biggest schedule risks, requiring plenty of recovery time to deal with possible long dwell times coming from above-average crowds.
The problem is that Amtrak has made no statements regarding how to integrate the three legs of the magic triangle. It proposed the Vision plan, which even political transit bloggers like Ben Kabak note the extreme cost of; there’s no funding, and the first segment for which it’s trying to obtain funding, the Gateway Tunnel, is very far from the top priority for speed or even for intercity rail capacity. It now proposes new rolling stock, but is unclear about what the trains are supposed to do except be very fast. (Bundling with a new-build line like California makes sense only if all curves are straightened to a radius of 4+ kilometers, even extremely expensive ones.)
Perhaps it’s a feature of opaque government, that Amtrak refuses to say how much money it needs to meet each timetable and capacity goal. For example, it could say that if Congress gives it $10 billion it could reduce travel time from Washington to Boston from the present 6:45 to 5:45 while also running a peak of 4 long trains per hour at that speed. (I think for $10 billion it’s possible to get down to 3:30 or at worst 4:00, but this is a matter of cost control and not just transparency, though transparency can indirectly lead to better cost control.) This would involve heavy cooperation with the commuter railroads that share its tracks and joint plans, as well as detailed public plans for how much to spend on each segment and for what purpose. This is routine in Swiss rail infrastructure planning, since all major projects have to be approved by referendum, but does not happen in the US. It could be that Amtrak knows what it’s doing but acts like it doesn’t because the structure of government in the US is such that these decisions are made behind closed doors.
But more likely, Amtrak doesn’t know what it’s doing, and is just proposing new initiatives that make it seem forward-looking. Changing FRA rules is an unmixed blessing. Bundling an order with California HSR is not. The fact that Amtrak is doing so, while keeping mum about even what kind of rolling stock it thinks it needs, suggests that it reverses the usual way reform should be: instead of a need for reform producing good results and thence good headlines, a need to get good headlines about reform produces reform ideas that sound good. Some of those good-sounding ideas really are good, but not all are. It’s important for good transit advocates to distinguish the two both privately and publicly.
I feel like in the last two years, we’ve seen important American transit and railroad managers say correct things. Shortly after I started making noise in comments about New York’s outsized subway construction costs, Jay Walder said as much in a report entitled Making Every Dollar Count. Joe Lhota proposed through-running on commuter rail as a solution to improve efficiency. Scott Stringer, too, talked publicly about comparative construction costs, and for all of my criticisms of transit managers who say that, I thought it was enough for him to say that as a political candidate for a medium-term office to deserve my endorsement for the mayoral election, which he unfortunately bowed out of. The FRA proposed to start working on new rules for rolling stock last year. At Amtrak, we’ve just now seen Joseph Boardman propose noncompliant rolling stock. Perhaps I’d be more optimistic if Walder and Lhota had stayed at the MTA for longer to implement their positive reform ideas, instead of using it as a springboard to secure a higher-paying job or run for mayor, but increasingly it looks like the good reform talk is not generally accompanied by good actions.
This is, again, where good transit advocates can have the most influence. We more or less know which reforms are required and which are not. There are disagreements at times (Clem, for one, has much better credentials as a good transit activist than I do), but on most of the agenda items there’s agreement. We already know what details we might want to see from a good plan of action, and the advantage of this is that we can check proposed plans against them. That Amtrak’s gotten so many details wrong suggests that it still doesn’t know what the best practices for rail construction are, even if the basic idea of getting around FRA rules is sound. I wish I didn’t have to say it, but I’ll believe Amtrak’s improved when I see it.