Amtrak announced in August that it will release high-speed trains in 2021 for its Acela Express service, but they won’t actually cut down on trip times.
The trains will run on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor that services major cities like New York, Washington D.C., and Boston beginning in 2021. Amtrak will release a total of 28 high-speed trains by the beginning of 2022 as part of a $2.45 billion federal investment, which will be used to manufacture the trains, revitalize train stations, and make track improvements.
From a technical standpoint, Amtrak’s high-speed trains will be better than the current Acela Express ones that can only operate at 150 mph. Amtrak is contracting with Alstom – the creator of France’s high-speed rail, the TGV – to create the high-speed trains that will operate at 160 mph, but have the ability to reach 186 mph.
But even though the trains are capable of operating at higher speeds, trip times will largely remain the same without major improvements to the physical railroad.
“Our trip times will be around the same,” Mark Yachmetz, senior vice president for Amtrak’s fleet and rail initiatives, told Business Insider. “It will save a few minutes and a few minutes are very valuable to us from a commercial standpoint.”
‘A multi-billion dollar’ process
The Northeast Corridor is the main rail market in North America, servicing a total of 2,200 trains a day, Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s executive vice president for business development along the Northeast Corridor, told Business Insider.
Most of those trains are used for commuter purposes, with another 60 or 70 used to haul freight. The rest are used for Amtrak’s Acela services, Gardner said.
The Northeast Corridor is “unique” in that it was retrofitted to accommodate higher speed trains in 1976 even though most parts of the railroad can only accommodate speeds under 100 mph, Gardner said. Some areas of the Northeast Corridor’s track can only handle speeds of 25 mph.
“All of that means that you have some loss of reliability and also loss of trip time that you might be able to achieve with a dedicated system,” he said.
When Gardner refers to a loss of reliability, he’s speaking to the delays many Amtrak commuters have experienced on more than one occasion.
When asked whether any aspects of the $2.45 billion project will help decrease the number of delays, Gardner said “No, fundamentally the infrastructure improvements we are making will enhance the ride quality of the trip and also permit a little more capacity in certain choke points,” he said.
Gardner said the main reason the Northeast Corridor can’t accommodate high-speed trains in its current form is that the curvature and alignment of the tracks are not capable of handling higher speeds.
“You really have to straighten out the railroad and create enough track capacity to be able to go considerably faster than what we do today, and that is a multi-billion dollar, decades-long process,” Gardner said.
California is pursuing a high-speed rail project of the sorts Gardner is referring to that would allow trains to operate at speeds topping 200 mph between San Francisco and Los Angeles by 2029.
But the project has hit snags, highlighting the difficulty of bringing major rail improvements to fruition.
Construction estimates for the California high-speed rail have doubled to $68 billion since the rail was first proposed and construction is four years behind schedule, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Moreover, Los Angeles Times’ reporter Ralph Vartabedian found that the high-speed rail will require government subsidies for years to survive, despite the rail authority repeatedly asserting it would not need operating subsidies.
All this is to say that Amtrak could only fully realize its high-speed train vision with major government support and funding. The Federal Rail Administration is currently putting together a developmental plan and environmental study regarding an infrastructure overhaul for the Northeast Corridor, but as Gardner said, that kind of change is years off even without hiccups.
Improvements are coming
Even though Amtrak’s $2.45 billion project won’t cut down on overall trip time, the new trains will come with several improvements.
The trains will have Wi-Fi, offer adjustable reading lights, and come with more USB and charging ports than currently available on the Acela Express. The trains will also increase passenger capacity by 35%.
Additionally, the project will allow for half-hourly service between Washington, DC, and New York during peak hours, and hourly service between New York and Boston.
Yachmetz said that the trains are also designed to increase in size, which can be done in the 2025 to 2030 time frame.
The new trains will also be lighter at 17 metric tons, cutting down on energy consumption by 20% and decreasing the wear and tear on the track.
“You can find a phone booth in our current Acelas. That was cutting edge,” Yachmetz said. “We are going to enhance Wi-Fi and all the different capabilities… so that as technologies evolve over the life of the equipment, we can incorporate it into this new [train.]”
But Yachmetz acknowledges that the next step for Amtrak’s Acela Express will need to come from the infrastructure level.
“We are commercially successful at the speeds we operate Acela, we will be much more commercially successful once we get the infrastructure,” he said.