Sunday, June 22, 2014

Amtrak's new Acelas, and high speed rail in the northeast

As some of you may have heard, several months ago Amtrak and CHSRA, the organisation responsibly for the development of High Speed Rail in California, decided to put out an RFP, a request fr proposals, on a  new high speed train to replace the existing Acelas and start high speed rail service in CA. Now, according to the Fresno Bee, they're cancelling the RFP and starting over, with the two organizations putting out two different sets of specs.
Why this happened:
I'm actually surprised this didn't happen sooner, for several reasons. The first involves the required performance characteristics of both routes. Acela IIs must travel at 160 MPH over twist track, and they do this via a mechanism called "tilting", where the train rotates the passenger cars to lessen lateral forces around a curve. Because of the extreme curvature of the Northeast Corridor, this is a must to achieve the improved trip times over ordinary Northeast Regionals. In California, however, these trains will run over a completely new, world class right of way at 220 MPH, and will have no need for tilt due to the straightness of the alignment chosen. Choosing to issue a joint RFP was contingent on manufacturers being able to deliver a trainset that met both specifications. As we learned recently, none can. The next step will be to release new RFPs, one for both agencies, detailing only what the agency wants, and wait for responses. This should push back delivery several months, and service is now expected to begin late 2018 for Amtrak. Even that date is seriously optimistic, considering it took ten years from RFP to revenue service the first time.
Why these trainsets are being ordered:
I've heard plenty of people asking a perfectly reasonable question: why are these trainsets being ordered? The existing trains are only 15 years old, and have reliability and OTP numbers that exceed every other Amtrak service. The short answer is there isn't enough Acela to go around. With only 300 seats per trainset (the cars are semi-permanently coupled and and cannot be lengthened), and only 20 trainsets, the booming demand for rail travel in the Northeast has caused heavy crowding, and especially south of New York, frequent sellouts. This has, as anyone who's priced out a trip knows, resulted in ridiculously high fares.
How they'll improve service:
Thanks to the failed joint RFP, we have a pretty good idea of what the trainsets will look like. They'll do something unusual in the US; they'll be EMUs. An EMU, or Electric Multiple Unit, is a train with motors and powered axles under every car, with no locomotive. In addition, passengers sit in the front and back car, currently taken by the locomotives, behind a cockpit style engineer control panel. By putting all the traction guts under the floor of the car, the entire train can be turned into seating, increasing capacity. Pretty much every other high speed rail system in the world, including CAs, will use EMUs for exactly that reason. EMUs also offer advantages in acceleration, especially if Amtrak can get out of the FRA's inane requirements involving crash strength (this will be the subject of another post). In total, we'll probably get five or ten-minute trip time improvements Boston-New York, and lower prices due to capacity expansion.

No comments:

Post a Comment