Published Tuesday, July 13th, 2021 | 10:30 am
Updated 10 minutes ago
DETROIT (AP) – Amtrak is betting heavily on a return in passenger numbers.
The country’s passenger railway wants to replace its fleet, which is almost half a century old, with the most modern trains that can run on electricity or diesel. It plans to spend $ 7.3 billion on buying 83 trains from Siemens, with options to buy more as riders rise. The funding has yet to be approved by Congress, but Amtrak CEO William Flynn is confident it will.
If not, Amtrak finances the trains and uses funds from state train services and fares to pay off its debt.
The more efficient trains to be built in California are slated to go into operation in 2024. You will have more comfortable seats, better ventilation systems, power outlets and USB ports, WiFi and panoramic windows.
The Associated Press recently spoke to Flynn about the new trains, how Amtrak passengers are recovering from the pandemic, and how infrastructure measures can improve intercity train travel.
The interview has been edited for the sake of clarity and length.
Q: How will these new trains help passengers?
A: These are 125 mph express trains. They will cut a few trips because we have to switch locomotives from electric to diesel in some states. The new trains are dual mode. It will definitely be a better passenger experience in the cabin itself. We’re very focused on our drivers (Americans with Disabilities Act) and have worked with the ADA community to make sure we incorporate important attributes for them. Certainly, in some cases where the route is reconstructed, speeds and travel times will improve.
Q: How fast can these trains go?
A: 125 mph (201 km / h). The limiting factor in most cases is the track construction, where we are talking about 145 kilometers per hour or less, depending on the condition and condition of the line. We’re talking about tracks that are largely owned by freight railways to which we have access.
Q: Will these 83 trains replace what you already have or can you expand the service?
A: It is more of an equivalent replacement than a capacity upgrade. We’re replacing 73 with a short-term option for 10. We have options for an additional 130 moves. We’re replacing this 40- to 50-year-old fleet with a fairly similar capacity. While we are working on expanding our so-called Amtrak Connects strategy and increasing the number of passengers by 20 million passengers per year from 32 million to 52 million, we can buy additional trains.
Q: You have about $ 200 million from a previous congressional grant? How do you finance the remaining amount?
A: The rest depends on direct funding to Amtrak, and states are funding their share. There is widespread support for replacing the 83 core pulls we are talking about. So we assume that we will have annual funding for our share. States will ultimately pay for the train sets they use. Amtrak owns the trains, so they pay for a period of time. If this money is not available, we can finance the units.
Q: Will this affect the Acela bullet trains in the Northeast Corridor?
A: Separate contract, separate manufacturer. The Acela is made by Alstom. It is made in New York State.
Q: Didn’t the number of passengers hit record highs in 2019, before the pandemic?
A: Yes, there were 32.4 million passengers. I think our ability to recover from a pandemic looks very encouraging. We are around 62 percent of the 2019 passenger numbers, with strong bookings well into autumn. A little ahead of what we expected. People want to travel. We feel this demand.
Q: Being close to others is still a problem. Do you see people passing it by when they are vaccinated?
A: I do. When you think of our trains, our seating groups for coaches are two by two, not three by three. There is a lot of legroom. Our coach seats feel much more like a domestic first class (airplane) seat. We worked with researchers from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. We wanted to make sure we really understood the airflow and exchanged fresh air every four to five minutes. Our passengers must continue to wear masks according to CDC guidelines, as must our crew.
Q: How close are you to resuming a normal schedule?
A: Before COVID, there were 300 to 310 trains daily. We are around 210 in operation today. Our long-distance trains have been completely restored. We had the running of Congress and the funding to do that. Most of our northeast corridor is back in operation. So the difference is really the state-supported network. In September and October we expect to be largely recovered.
Q: Will these new trains reduce pollution?
A: We’re really excited about the environmental and sustainability aspects here. A train ride per seat mile is in some cases 83% more fuel efficient than driving a car and less polluting than flying. We just can’t rest there. We buy trains for the long term. While we are running on diesel, our general emissions reductions (from current trains) include an 85% reduction in volatile organic compounds, a 70% reduction in carbon monoxide, an 85% reduction in nitrogen oxides and a reduction in particulate matter. We refine these numbers. It’s something our drivers are sure to ask for.
Q: How do President Joe Biden and Congress’s infrastructure proposals affect your plans?
A: This would add significant funding to intercity passenger services and significant funding to Amtrak. It would allow us to make the necessary investments we need to repair the infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor. We have bridges and tunnels, stations in a sense from Washington to Boston. Our oldest tunnel was built in 1873. A 128 year old tunnel over the Hudson River, 110 to 120 year old key bridges. The other part is the expansion which introduces about 39 or 40 new routes and expands the service to another 20 routes outside the Northeast Corridor.