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In crisis, Amtrak is focused on testing and training for new trains to debut in 2021

A new high-speed Acela train pulls into Union Station in Washington on Monday. Testing for  prototypes of the train is underway in the Northeast Corridor and at a federal facility in Pueblo, Colo.
A new high-speed Acela train pulls into Union Station in Washington on Monday. Testing for prototypes of the train is underway in the Northeast Corridor and at a federal facility in Pueblo, Colo. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Manufacturing and testing of Amtrak’s new high-speed Acela trains, expected to debut next year in the Northeast, is on track despite interruptions to production and training during the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.

Testing of the first two Avelia Liberty high-speed train sets from French manufacturer Alstom, is underway in the Northeast Corridor and at a federal facility in Pueblo, Colo., and Amtrak said railroad crews have started training on the new technology in anticipation of a launch next spring.

The Acela prototype arrived at the Colorado Federal Railroad Administration site for nine months of testing in February. Officials said it recently exceeded performance expectations, traveling at 165 mph, above the 160 mph limit the trains would be allowed to travel once in service between Washington and Boston. The current Acela trains travel up to 150 mph.

“We are laser-focused on delivering this new fleet of trains,” said Caroline N. Decker, Amtrak’s vice president for the Northeast Corridor. “Looking at where we are in terms of the production, we have a high degree of confidence that a 2021 launch is very doable, and certainly we’re eager to introduce the new fleet to the Northeast Corridor as soon as possible.”

The $2.5 billion project, which also includes major infrastructure improvements to accommodate the new trains, is moving forward at a time when Amtrak is preparing to reduce staff by up to 20 percent and is requesting nearly $1.5 billion more in federal aid to keep afloat amid the unprecedented financial hardship from the pandemic. The health crisis that shut down much of the country in March devastated the passenger railroad’s ridership and revenue.

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The investment in the Acela was originally aimed to grow one of Amtrak’s strongest lines. Post-pandemic, the investment offers hope for the future as the company tries to recoup from massive losses suffered when ridership plummeted with the health crisis. Railroad officials say they are determined to keep the project on track, saying it could stimulate economic recovery.

The contract for the 28 trains was awarded in 2016 and supports about 1,300 jobs across the country, officials said, including 400 at Alstom’s facilities in areas of support such as train control, rail signaling, engineering and maintenance. The new trains will replace the existing fleet of 20 sets starting next year.

“It’s a silver lining at a time of a lot of dark clouds,” Decker said. “We’re very mindful that we are in very tumultuous times, but I will say this keeps us very motivated, very focused on what is going to be a real game-changer for train travel.”

The entire new fleet should be in operation in 2022, when Amtrak hopes demand for train travel will have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Acela, Amtrak’s premier service, was performing at an all-time high before the crisis. Ridership on the Acela grew by 4.3 percent in fiscal year 2019, compared with the previous year, and at a higher pace than the growth on the Northeast Regional and the company’s state-funded routes. Acela’s revenue also grew by about 5.4 percent, according to Amtrak.

That success led Amtrak to pursue expansion of the service, adding nonstop trips between Washington and New York last fall and an additional Washington to New York to Boston round trip on Saturdays.

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The new trips showed promise, officials said, until the coronavirus hit and the Acela, popular for business travel, was among the first services to be cut as the virus began to spread and demand for travel sank. Some Acela trips resumed Monday, but officials said the railroad doesn’t expect it or its entire network of intercity passenger trains to return to normal anytime soon. It is even less clear when, or if, the new Acela nonstop will return.

In late May, Amtrak chief executive William J. Flynn said the company was projecting a 50 percent reduction in systemwide revenue in fiscal 2021, saying demand remains about 5 percent of normal. The company estimates ridership in the next fiscal year may reach 16 million, or roughly 50 percent of the pre-pandemic levels.

Sticking to the schedule

The new trains are being built with several touchless and self-serve features that Amtrak says should make train travel more appealing in the post-coronavirus era with Americans still fearful of infection spreading through communal surfaces and human contact.

The lavatories are more spacious, accessibility compliant and have touchless and contactless door and faucets. The cafe car will have self-select and self-serve options.

Once the trains go into service, Amtrak plans to implement reserved seating, which the company says may help reduce the long and often tumultuous lines at the station as passengers rush to board all at once to grab a seat.

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Among other features: additional interior and exterior signage to assist passengers in finding their way, streamlined overhead luggage compartments and doorless luggage space so passengers have fewer surfaces to touch. Power outlets and USB ports are more accessible to both passengers in between the seats.

Amtrak officials said the company is working with the manufacturer to reevaluate the interior design to determine if any other enhancements can be made in response to the pandemic.

“Are there additional features that we could incorporate to provide better and more enhanced safety for the traveling public?” Decker said. “We’re going to do everything we can to continue to improve the product.”

In addition to their faster speed, the trains can accommodate up to 386 passengers, an increase of 25 percent.

Earlier this year, Amtrak’s inspector general warned that the company’s plan to roll out the trains early next year could be thwarted, citing delays in their delivery, testing and training. Infrastructure improvements, including modifications to three maintenance facilities needed to get the trains into service also were behind schedule, according to the inspector general’s report.

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Amtrak said last week that it awarded contracts, and work is underway for modification of the maintenance facilities in Washington, New York and Boston. It also said a team of Amtrak engineers is working closely with the manufacturer. Various work groups are leading training, testing and other preparations.

The original plan to roll out the trains starting in January had already been pushed back a few months, Decker said. The expectation now, she said, is to have the first trains enter service in late spring or early summer next year with nine of the 28 train sets operating by fall 2021. That, however, is dependent not only upon the manufacturer completing the train sets but also successful completion of rigorous testing and training.

As of this week, the testing on the first two trains was progressing, Amtrak said. The high-speed testing of the train set based in Colorado completed a “milestone” last month when it traveled at speeds up to 165 mph. That train has six months of testing before it returns to Hornell, N.Y., for installation of interiors.

On Monday, the second prototype, based for testing in Philadelphia, made its way to Washington. The train is undergoing testing on the same tracks where Amtrak passengers are carried and will be in the corridor through the end of the year. Testing evaluates the trains’s performances and safety, from railway dynamics to traction, brakes and train control management systems. After a successful testing, the train also will return to Hornell to be completed.

“The project is on track,” Alstom spokesman Michelle Stein said, confirming that the 28 trains “will be produced and delivered by 2022.”

Production at the Alstom facility in Hornell slowed in March as New York shut down in its effort to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. The work at the factory, however, was deemed essential, and although there was a reduction in personnel, it didn’t close completely.

Alstom said the impacts have been manageable and minimized in part because of a “strong supply chain of nearly 250 suppliers in 27 states” and because 95 percent of the components for the new train sets are produced domestically. For the testing, Stein said, Alstom deployed advanced digital remote monitoring capabilities, which have allowed the testing program to continue in Colorado despite travels limitations.

Some production activities continued during the crisis, such as component testing, cabling and wiring work, and other warehouse jobs that could be done with social distancing, Amtrak and Alstom said. As of this week, Alstom had recalled all production workers back to the site and work was ramping up, officials said.

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As the testing of the first two trains gets underway, in New York more than 250 workers are working on the production of two additional trains at the Hornell factory.

As Amtrak works toward recovery from the pandemic, the new trains are “essential to improving reliability, service, safety and capacity” for travel along the Northeast, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. Earlier this year, Schumer urged the Federal Railroad Administration to begin the federal inspection and testing of the train sent to the Colorado facility, saying that keeping the project on schedule was critical.

“The Next Generation Acela train sets, built by our world-class workforce in Upstate New York, will help Amtrak grow revenue and ridership for years to come,” Schumer said this week.

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