The Acela is getting a big update! On Tuesday, Amtrak inked a contract with manufacturer Alstom to build new trains for its profitable high-speed rail line. The Democrat and Chronicle reports:
“We’ve reached the final destination on this long, successful journey and will soon unload billions of dollars of investment and hundreds of good-paying jobs in upstate New York,” Sen. Charles Schumer said in a statement about the deal.
The agreement will create an estimated 750 jobs in the state, including 400 at Alstom’s rail-car plant, Schumer said in July.
There was no immediate comment from Alstom.
Amtrak said the planning for its manufacturing work continues, but it did not confirm that an agreement with Alstom and the federal government had been reached.
“Amtrak continues its progress to acquire new equipment for our Acela Express service,” Amtrak said in a statement. “We will have more details in the coming weeks.”
Alstom is planning to build high-speed trains for Amtrak’s Acela Express service that runs along the East Coast, a $2.5 billion program.
For those hoping the new trains will finally bring Europe-style high-speed rail, this is likely to be a letdown. Many details about the new trains remain unknown, but they’ll max out at 160 mph like the current sets. The seats will hopefully be more comfortable and the stainless steel will probably be shinier. But otherwise, it’s hard to imagine how these cars will really be an improvement over the existing stock.
$2.5 billion is quite a pretty penny, too. Alon Levy estimates that it’s at least two times the cost of high-speed trains that run in China, Europe, and Japan. And all of those trains run much faster than the Acela does even on the short segments where it reaches 150 mph. More from Levy’s very smart blog, Pedestrian Observations:
There is no excuse for such high costs. The technical specs are not particularly innovative:
There is no explicit requirement for tilt. There is a requirement that trains be capable of traveling between New York and Washington in 2:21 (current trip time is 2:48) and between New Haven and Boston in 1:51 (current trip time is about 2 hours, skipping New London, which the specs require trains to stop at); there is no mention of which track upgrades are forthcoming, but given Amtrak’s heavy schedule padding, it is not difficult for a good train to meet the requirements.
At least they’re upgrading the trains and not waiting for them to break down, right? Well, the thing is, it’s far from clear that the current Acela stock is heading toward the end of its lifespan. In Europe, TGV trains often stay in use for thirty years. Japan upgrades its rolling stock more often, but those upgrades usually bring faster speeds and other substantial improvements.
The Acela is yet another case study in why U.S. infrastructure is so bad. It’s a popular, profitable service—one of only a few for Amtrak. It operates on fully-electrified track all of which Amtrak owns—another unusual set of circumstances. But it still barely qualifies as high-speed, its proven track record doesn’t mean it is now in line for meaningful upgrades, and it costs much more than much better systems in other parts of the world. In other words, Acela has a lot going for it and yet it still isn’t getting much better or more efficient to operate.
If you want to understand why we can’t have nice things, look to Acela for a demonstration.