Faster trains, more seats and WiFi that works?
The $2.45 billion federal loan that officials awarded this summer to Amtrak will help pay for those upgrades and more as the railroad continues its push to modernize service and rebuild aging infrastructure along the busy Northeast Corridor, including in the Washington region.
The package is the largest single loan ever given by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“This loan is a key step to providing investments needed to help keep high-speed trains moving throughout the region and to help all commuters in the Northeast Corridor,” said Vice President Biden, who made the announcement at the Amtrak station in Wilmington, Del. “We need these kinds of investments to keep this region — and our whole country — moving, and to create new jobs.”
The additional dollars are a significant boost for Amtrak, which has spent years lobbying an often-skeptical Congress for money to pay for a backlog of capital needs.
“Simply put, this investment is a game-changer,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) “It means more riders and faster trip times along the Northeast Corridor, which will boost Amtrak revenue and pave the way for further infrastructure and safety upgrades throughout the Northeast. While this loan is just a small fraction of what we should be investing in Amtrak, it’ll go a long way toward proving that Amtrak can make smart business decisions that improve the service, ridership and revenue.”
The loan also comes at a time when Amtrak is transitioning to new leadership.
Last month, Charles W. “Wick” Moorman, a former top executive with Norfolk Southern Railway, was named president and chief executive, replacing the retiring Joe Boardman. Moorman began his job Sept. 1.
Amtrak officials emphasized that the money is a loan that will be repaid with revenue they expect to generate along the corridor. Under conditions of the agreement with the Transportation Department, the passenger railroad will have 29 years to pay back the money, with repayment beginning no later than 2022. The loan comes through the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program.
The bulk of the money will be spent to buy 28 new trains for the popular Acela Express service. The current fleet of 20, which debuted in the early 2000s, will be retired as the new trains come online, expected to begin in 2021.
The billions in federal loans also will pay for other improvements to tracks and stations along the 457-mile corridor. One such project is the proposed multibillion-dollar makeover of Washington’s Union Station. Money also will go toward the construction of Moynihan Station in an old post office across from Penn Station in New York.
In addition, the loan will help pay for new platforms at Baltimore’s Penn Station and at New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, as well as for 30 miles of track between New Carrollton and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. Those track upgrades were part of a project that began in the 1980s but was stopped when funding ran out, according to Mark Yachmetz, Amtrak’s senior vice president for strategic rail initiatives.
“A lot of people get sticker shock when they look at these kinds of investments,” said Jim Mathews, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “But the fact is not doing it also imposes a cost. We would argue that this is how you do this with the most bang for the buck.”
The Northeast Corridor is among the passenger railroad’s biggest sources of revenue.
The addition of eight trains to Amtrak’s inventory means it will be able to increase Acela service between Washington and New York, officials said. Currently, Acela trains leave on the hour; once the new trains are in service, frequency will increase to every 30 minutes during peak hours. Between New York and Boston, where the time between trains can reach two hours, Amtrak hopes to increase service to trains every hour during peak periods.
Amtrak executives said they are making this purchase with an eye toward the future.
“We’re not buying this equipment for the demand that will exist in 2020 when we start introducing them,” Yachmetz said. “We’re really looking at the size of the market in 2035.”
Demographers project that between 2010 and 2040, the population in the corridor will grow to 64 million, an increase of roughly 23 percent. Six of Amtrak’s busiest stations are in the Northeast Corridor, considered the crown jewel of the railroad’s operations, with New York and Washington ranked first and second for passenger traffic.
Amtrak’s new trains will be lighter and faster and will be able to accommodate one-third more passengers, depending on how they are configured, Yachmetz said. Unlike the current trains, which each have roughly 300 seats, the new cars will have flexible configurations so additional seats can be added depending on demand.
The new trains will be capable of traveling at speeds up to 186 mph, but will travel at speeds up to 160 mph when they make their Northeast Corridor debut, officials said. Yachmetz said the trains will be able to travel faster once associated non-train infrastructure upgrades are made. Currently, it takes roughly 2½ hours to travel from Washington’s Union Station to New York’s Penn Station on Acela trains, which can travel roughly 135 mph.
“We’re trying to avoid overpromising,” Yachmetz said on future travel times. “Personally, I think we’ll see something that takes several minutes off the schedule.”
The new trains will be a technical leap for Amtrak, he said. While the current fleet might not be considered old by some standards, technology has evolved.
Yachmetz offered this example: When the current Acela fleet was being designed in the 1990s, space on the trains was set aside for onboard pay phones — a technology that at the time was considered cutting edge, Yachmetz said.
“At the time, no one envisioned that we’d all have our own cellphones,” he said. By contrast, the new trains are designed to accommodate current and future technology. The hope is that once delivered, the trains will be in service for 30 years.
The trains will include small details that passengers have come to expect: USB ports and individual reading lights at every seat — and that ever-so-frustrating WiFi service will be vastly improved, he said.
The first prototypes are expected to be ready in 2019, with all of the new trains expected to be in service by the end of 2022.