Fleet Financing

Boasting new trains, Amtrak CEO predicts passengers will return

DETROIT (AP) – Amtrak is betting big on a return in goodwill.

The country’s passenger railroad wants to replace its nearly half-century-old fleet with state-of-the-art trains that can run on electricity or diesel. He plans to spend $ 7.3 billion to buy 83 trains made by Siemens, with options to buy more if ridership increases. The funding has yet to be approved by Congress, but William Flynn, CEO of Amtrak, is confident it will happen.

If not, Amtrak will finance the trains and pay off its debt with money from state rail services and passenger fares.

The most efficient trains, which will be built in California, are expected to start running in 2024. They will have more comfortable seats, better ventilation systems, power outlets and USB ports, Wi-Fi and panoramic windows.

The Associated Press recently spoke with Flynn about the new trains, how Amtrak ridership is recovering from the pandemic, and how infrastructure measures can boost intercity rail service.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Q: How will these new trains help passengers?

A: These are 125 mph high speed trains. They will shorten some trips because in some states we have to change the locomotives from electric to diesel. The new trains are dual-mode. It will absolutely be a better passenger experience in the cabin itself. We are very focused on our runners (Americans with Disabilities Act) and have worked with the ADA community to make sure we have incorporated the attributes that are important to them. Certainly, in some cases where the track is rebuilt, speeds and travel times will improve.


Q: How fast can these trains go?

A: 125 mph (201 kilometers per hour). The limiting factor in most cases is the track construction, where we’re talking about 90 mph (145 km / h) and less, depending on the condition and condition of the track. We are talking about tracks which, for the most part, belong to freight railways to which we have access.


Q: Will these 83 trains replace what you already own or can you expand the service?

A: This is more of a like-for-like replacement than a capacity expansion. We are replacing 73, with a short term option for 10. We have options on another 130 trainsets. We’re replacing that 40- to 50-year-old fleet with a fairly similar capacity. As we work to develop what we call our Amtrak Connects strategy, increasing the number of passengers by 20 million passengers per year from 32 million to 52 million, we can purchase additional trains.


Q: Do you have about $ 200 million from a previous appropriation by Congress? How are you going to finance the balance?

A: The rest would depend on direct funding from Amtrak, and the states are funding their share. There is broad support to replace the 83 base trains we are talking about. So we expect that we will have annual funding for our portion. States will ultimately pay for the trains they use. Amtrak owns the trains, so they will pay over a period of time. If there should come a time when this money is not specifically available, we have the capacity to fund the units.


Q: Are Acela high speed trains in the Northeast Corridor covered by this?

A: Separate contract, separate manufacturer. The Acela is manufactured by Alstom. It is made in upstate New York.


Q: In 2019, before the pandemic, didn’t ridership reach record levels?

A: Yes, it was 32.4 million passengers. I think our ability to recover from the pandemic looks very encouraging. We’re at about 62% of ridership in 2019, with strong bookings through the fall. A little ahead of what we expected. People want to travel. We feel this demand.


Q: Being in a confined space with others is always a concern. Do you see people overcome this once they are vaccinated?

A: I do. If you think of our trains, in our coach seats, it’s two by two, not three by three. There is plenty of legroom. Our coach seats are much more like a domestic first class (airplane) seat. We worked with researchers from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. We wanted to make sure we understood the airflow, exchanging fresh air every four to five minutes. Our passengers are still required to wear masks as per CDC guidelines, as are our crew.


Q: How close are you to returning to a normal schedule?

A: Before COVID, we operated around 300 to 310 trains per day. We operate around 210 today. Our long distance trains are fully restored. We had the leadership and funding from Congress to do it. Most of our northeast corridor is back in service. So the difference is really the state-backed network. As we head into September and October, we expect that we will be largely recovered.


Q: Will these new trains reduce pollution?

A: We are really excited about the environmental and sustainability considerations here. Taking a train per seat mile is 83% more fuel efficient in some cases than driving and has less of an impact on the environment than flying. We just can’t rest there. We buy trains for the long term. While operating in diesel mode, our general emission reductions (from current trains) include an 85% reduction in volatile organic compounds, a 70% reduction in carbon monoxide, an 85% reduction in oxides of nitrogen and a 95% reduction in emissions special case. We are refining these numbers. This is definitely something our runners are asking for.


Q: How do President Joe Biden’s and Congress’ infrastructure proposals fit into your plans?

A: It would provide substantial funding for intercity passenger rail transportation and substantial funding for Amtrak. This would allow us to make the necessary investments to repair the infrastructure in the northeast corridor. We have bridges and tunnels, stations to some extent from Washington to Boston. Our oldest tunnel was built in 1873. A 128 year old tunnel crossing the Hudson River, key bridges 110 to 120 years old. The other part is the expansion, the introduction of 39 or 40 new roads, the extension of the service on 20 other roads outside the northeast corridor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.