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Amtrak’s faster, higher-tech Acela trains are delayed again

Pandemic challenges, need for more testing will put their debut 2½ years behind schedule

A prototype next-generation Acela train pulls into D.C.'s Union Station during testing in 2020. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The debut of train sets intended to replace Amtrak’s Acela fleet will be delayed another 18 months, according to the passenger rail service, citing “rigorous” testing requirements to operate the high-speed technology for the first time in the United States.

The 28 Avelia Liberty high-speed trains, from the French manufacturer Alstom, are now slated to enter service in fall 2023, 2½ years behind schedule. The new train cars, modeled after trains that are in operation across Europe, are being assembled in a facility in Hornell, N.Y.

“We want our customers to experience the new train sets as soon as possible,” said Laura Mason, Amtrak’s executive vice president overseeing major capital projects. “But obviously, we need to do that when it’s fully tested and certified and proven safe.”

Mason described the testing required by federal regulations as “very rigorous” and said it would take Alstom longer than it anticipated to work through the requirements to satisfy U.S. safety standards, as well as compatibility with the rail infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor.

The $2.5 billion investment is expected to improve reliability, quality of service, safety and capacity in the Northeast, the busiest rail corridor in the United States. The trains will accommodate up to 386 passengers — an increase of 25 percent, according to Amtrak — and replace an existing fleet of 20, which entered service when Acela launched in 2000.

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The first two train sets had been expected to enter Acela, Amtrak’s premier service, in spring 2021, but Amtrak said last year that delivery would be a year behind schedule because of delays caused by production and training interruptions during the coronavirus pandemic. The railroad also said early testing led to the discovery of compatibility problems with the Northeast Corridor tracks that prompted modifications to the train design.

Now Amtrak says Alstom needs to complete extensive computer modeling and simulation tests and “ensure they meet [Federal Railroad Administration] safety requirements with this latest generation of high speed technology.” A prototype began testing on the route between Washington and Boston in 2020.

The new train set is articulated, with adjoining coaches sharing a wheel truck, a structure that officials said will minimize bouncing felt by passengers and improve the quality of the ride, stability and safety. But that has also proved to be more challenging from a modeling perspective, Mason said, noting that testing will require proving the cars’ safety both for one train set by itself and for the whole model.

Completing the computer modeling and simulation runs to meet FRA guidelines remain the major hurdle, said Mason, who added that the Alstom warehouse is fully staffed and supply chain issues are cleared up. Design changes in the past year helped address the incompatibility 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.

“Once we have this modeling complete, we will submit a testing plan. We will then be able to run at speed, end-to-end in the corridor,” Mason said.

Testing of the prototype in the Northeast is expected to continue this year. A second 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.

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The FRA, which provides oversight, said in a statement that it will continue to provide technical assistance to Amtrak and Alstom “to ensure compliance with federal regulations.”

Amtrak unveiled the interiors of the fleet at a press event in Philadelphia late last month, showing more modern and comfortable spaces. The trains are being built with a number of features that Amtrak says should make train travel more appealing in the post-pandemic era, including reserved seating, touchless features in restrooms and HVAC modifications to increase the air-exchange rate inside cabins.

“Between the sleek design of their interiors, state-of-the-art technology, and sustainable amenities, and innovative safety features, our new Acela trains will help revolutionize American train travel,” Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s president and chief executive, said in a statement March 31, showing images of the train interiors.

Seats are equipped with personal outlets, USB ports and adjustable reading lights. They will recline in a way that officials said will not encroach on other passengers’ space. Handholds are built in for people walking down the aisle.

The cafe car will have a self-select and checkout option, standing room for passengers, electrical outlets for charging and digital screens that display trip information.

According to Alstom, the company relies on about 250 domestic suppliers in 27 states. The contract for the 28 trains, which was awarded in 2016, supports about 1,300 jobs, officials said, including 400 at Alstom’s facilities.

The first train was to have been delivered in January 2021, 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.

Alstom, in a statement, cited challenges caused by the pandemic, including supply chain issues, as contributors to the delays and noted that these are the first train sets built under an FRA rule that establishes new safety standards for high-speed trains, with new design specifications to allow for operation at the highest speeds on shared tracks.

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The company said it is focused on delivery of the train sets and obtaining the FRA approval to bring “these first of its kind, American built, high-speed trains” into revenue service.

Delays in the delivery of the new trains will force the railroad to make the Acela legacy fleet last longer, prompting extra mechanical investments to reduce train malfunctioning that often leads to delays. The hiccups in delivery are also likely to hurt Amtrak’s plans to sell more seats on its premier service and eventually yield losses in revenue.

Ridership in March rose to 71 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and bookings are inching closer to normal, reaching about 80 percent this week, according to Amtrak. Officials said business travel, the customer base for Acela, also appears to be on a rebound.

The Acela has been one of Amtrak’s strongest lines. Before the pandemic, the service’s ridership grew by 4.3 percent in fiscal year 2019 compared with the previous year, markedly higher than the 2.9 percent growth on the Northeast Corridor and 2.4 percent growth on the company’s state-funded routes.

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