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Debut of Amtrak’s new Acela trains delayed a year by new round of testing

The manufacturer had to alter designs to make the train compatible with aging infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor

The next-generation Acela train arrives at Union Station in Washington on June 1, 2020. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Amtrak’s new Acela train cars need an extra round of testing to ensure they can safely operate on the curvy and aging tracks of the Northeast Corridor, railroad officials said, confirming a year-long delay in the delivery of the new trains.

A prototype train that began tests on the route between Washington and Boston last year was incompatible with the corridor’s track and its catenary system — the overhead wires that supply the train with electricity. The train had to be modified to work harmoniously with the infrastructure, according to Amtrak officials.

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The first two of 28 Avelia Liberty high-speed train sets from the French manufacturer Alstom had been expected to enter service this spring. Amtrak now projects a spring 2022 debut, citing not only the train reconfiguration, but also delays caused by production and training interruptions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Larry Biess, who oversees the rollout of the new Acela trains at Amtrak, said Alstom modified the train’s design to address the compatibility problems identified during testing.

The train would lose contact with the electrified catenary wire and could not reach the optimal speed, he said. The adjustments ensure that the device atop the train that makes contact with the wire will perform properly, Biess said.

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The modifications led to extra testing, extensive computer modeling and simulation runs. Officials said the adjustments ultimately will improve how the train handles curves.

“Unfortunately for us, the tests have been an extended affair,” Biess said, noting that this work extended by several months the timeline for introducing the new trains.

He said some challenges are related to the age and configuration of the infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor.

“The track was basically designed in the 1800s. It’s very curvy. It presents a bit more of a challenge than the track that this train runs on in Europe,” he said. “If we were running on a straighter track, with a more modern infrastructure, it probably wouldn’t have taken as long as it has.”

The train has been successful in other tests of performance and safety, including railway dynamics, traction, braking and train control management systems, officials said.

Another prototype, tested at a federal facility in Pueblo, Colo., exceeded performance expectations, traveling at 165 mph, higher than the 160 mph limit on the trains traveling between Washington and Boston. Current Acela trains travel up to 150 mph.

“The Pueblo track is a good test environment, but it’s not identical to the Northeast Corridor tracks,” Biess said. “The degree of curvature is not the same. The rail profile is not the same. So although it was a really good first test, you really can’t use that data and apply it immediately against the train for the Northeast Corridor.”

The new trains for Amtrak’s premier service are a major overhaul for the passenger railroad’s service in the Northeast, the busiest rail corridor in the United States. The trains are expected to improve reliability, quality of service, safety and capacity. They will accommodate up to 386 passengers, an increase of 25 percent, according to Amtrak.

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Their delivery this year was expected to give Amtrak a boost as it exits a pandemic-induced crisis that devastated its ridership and revenue numbers in the past year.

Amtrak’s inspector general warned last year that a 2021 rollout of the new trains was unlikely, citing delays in delivery, testing and training. Even before the train compatibility issues emerged, Alstom reported a schedule delay because of redesign work to meet safety standards.

The $2.5 billion project also includes infrastructure improvements to accommodate the new trains. Amtrak said most of that work has been completed, including modification of maintenance facilities in Washington, New York and Boston.

At the Alstom facility in Hornell, N.Y., work was deemed essential amid virus-related restrictions last year, but the plant experienced a reduction in personnel and had supply chain problems that slowed production, according to the railroad.

Alstom said in a statement that it is focused on delivering the new trains, saying that testing is “a critical part of the program.”

The train that was at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) site in Colorado since February 2020 returned to the Alstom facility this spring after testing was completed. It will be taken apart and each part analyzed, Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said.

Testing of the prototype in the Northeast will continue this summer. A second phase of testing will begin after clearance from the FRA, which provides oversight.

The FRA said in a statement that it will continue to provide technical assistance to Amtrak, when requested, during the testing process. The agency noted that it has no role in setting production schedules or delivery dates for the new trains joining the Acela service.

Federal regulations requires that any high-speed train be tested on the tracks where it will operate. After successful testing, Amtrak would need formally to seek approval from the FRA to operate the trains in the Northeast Corridor.

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. The new trains will replace an existing fleet of 20.

The first train was to have been delivered in January this year, and the entire fleet was to have been in operation in 2022. Amtrak officials declined to discuss whether Alstom faces penalties, which they said are built into the contract. They said a team at Amtrak is evaluating and calculating any possible penalties.

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-pandemic era. The features include reserved seating, hand-sanitizer stations, touchless features in restrooms and HVAC modifications to increase the air-exchange rate inside cabins.

Among the new features: additional interior and exterior signage to help passengers in finding their way, streamlined overhead luggage compartments and doorless luggage bays so that passengers touch fewer surfaces. Power outlets and USB ports will be between seats and more accessible to passengers.

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Amtrak said the year-long delay will allow it to refine training and Alstom to accelerate production. Instead of rolling out two trains as was expected, the company is looking at putting up to six new trains in service next spring.

“What we’re really trying to do here is get the most performance that we can out of this train with the absolute, ironclad understanding of the safety of its operation,” Biess said.