Saturday, July 24, 2010

CAF kicks off Amtrak fleet renewal program

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Amtrak’s long-awaited fleet renewal program finally got under way late Friday, July 24, when the railroad awarded a  five-year, $298.1 million contract to CAF USA for 130 new single-level “Viewliner 2” passenger railcars to support long-distance train services. The order, the first for passenger cars since the Acela Express program of the mid-1990s, includes 25 sleeping cars, 25 diners, 55 baggage cars, and 25 baggage/crew dormitory cars. The first car is scheduled to roll out of CAF USA’s Elmira Heights, N.Y., assembly plant in October 2012.

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The Viewliner 2s will be similar to Amtrak’s existing, aging Viewliner 1 sleeper fleet, which will be supplemented with the 25 new sleepers. The diner, baggage, and baggage/dorms will replace all of Amtrak’s ancient Heritage Fleet diners, baggage, and baggage/dorms, which date back to the 1940s and 1950s. All Heritage baggage/dorm cars were retired in 1996, and replaced with Heritage sleepers displaced from revenue service by the 50 production Viewliner 1 sleepers. These Heritage sleeper/dorms, some 25 cars, were in turn retired several years ago, with the dining and lounge car staff and other crew members then occupying space in the revenue sleepers on Silver Star, Silver Meteor, Crescent, Lake Shore Limited and Cardinal trains, reducing revenue capacity. The Viewliner 2 baggage/dorms will free up revenue space on these trains. They will also be capable of 125 mph, 15 mph faster than their predecessors, and thus fit into Amtrak’s high speed rail plans.

The Viewliner 2s will feature modern interiors with improved configuration, better lighting, extra a.c. power outlets for personal electronic devices, and efficient HVAC systems. The baggage cars will feature bicycle racks. Though designed primarily with long-distance service in mind, the Viewliner 2 cars will be capable of operating anywhere on the Amtrak system.

CAF USA, a subsidiary of Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles of Beasain, Spain, will manufacture the cars’ stainless steel shells and perform final assembly at Elmira Heights, where it currently produces equipment for several U.S. transit systems. CAF USA Vice President Virginia Verdeja said the company will add 575 jobs at the plant to fulfill the order.

There was only one other bidder, Alstom, whose U.S. manufacturing facilities are based in Hornell, N.Y. Both Alstom and CAF offered 100% domestic manufacturing, including carshells. CAF's bid was approximately $90 million lower than Alstom’s. (A local newspaper, the Hornell Evening Tribune, incorrectly reported that Bombardier Transportation and Kawasaki Railcar USA also submitted bids.)

Amtrak says the first year of CAF’s five-year contract, which includes an option for up to 70 additional cars, will be financed with $29.8 million from current revenues, “which are running above budget estimates due, in part, to ridership that is on a record-breaking pace.” Amtrak says it will seek to fund subsequent years of the contract with other sources such as loans or direct Congressional appropriations.

“This equipment purchase is just the first step in our multiyear Fleet Strategy Plan to replace our entire fleet of passenger rail cars and locomotives over the next 30 years and help support the growth of a domestic rail manufacturing industry,” Boardman noted, adding, “We are currently reviewing bids to replace many of the [AEM-7] electric locomotives used along the Northeast Corridor and may make a contract award yet this summer.” The bidders for the 70-unit locomotive contract are Bombardier and Siemens.  

The Viewliner 1s date back to the late 1980s. Three prototypes were assembled at Amtrak's shop in Beech Grove, Ind., in 1987-1988 from Budd Company components. Two sleeping cars (nos. 2300 and 2301) and one dining car (no. 8400) were built. These cars were in regular service until 2002; money from the 2009 federal economic stimulus package recently funded the restoration of no. 8400 to service. That car is in Beech Grove undergoing a rehab. The first production Viewliner 1s were built in 1995-1996 by Amerail/Morrison-Knudsen at Hornell (now Alstom). Initially, 100 sleepers were to be built, but Amtrak scaled the order back to 50.