Two veteran railroaders with 110 years’ experience between them have called for Amtrak to phase out use of Amfleet I equipment on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) for safety reasons. They claim that the speeds at which conventional trains run on the nation’s busiest passenger railroad line poses a risk to the cars and the riders in them, a risk not present at conventional speeds. Amfleet cars run as fast as 125 mph (FRA Class 7) there, while passenger trains on most lines elsewhere are limited to 79 mph (Class 4). Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) both disagree with the claim regarding safety.
Long-Time Railroaders Raise the Issue
The warning comes from Paul H. Reistrup, who ordered the cars at issue when he was President of Amtrak in the mid-1970s. Reistrup began his railroad career in a civil engineering capacity with the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) in 1957, and spent time managing passenger service there and at the Illinois Central (IC) before coming to Amtrak in 1975 to take the top job.
Joining Reistrup in this initiative is Scott R. Spencer, who started his railroad career in 1979 when a student at Northeastern University. His career included jobs at New Jersey Transit and SEPTA in Philadelphia, as well as consulting in Alaska and as an adviser for high-speed rail in Taiwan. Today he is Chief Operating Officer of AmeriStarRail, which has a plan for enhanced service along the NEC and on other lines from Richmond, Va. to the Downeaster in Maine. He has also proposed a plan for an “Air Train” to La Guardia Airport in New York that differs from the existing Port Authority plan, and the “Baltimore Grand Slam,” a comprehensive plan for integrating rail transit in that city.
Reistrup and Spencer are particularly concerned about the speeds at which Amfleet I cars run on the NEC, especially since they will soon be 50 years old. Specifically, Reistrup referred to side sills being patched and diminishing buff strength. He said they could buckle from lateral motion during an accident. He noted that the FRA has a policy of requiring that most freight cars be retired at age 40, but no similar “retirement age” for passenger equipment, even though such cars are subject to vibrations and to wear and tear as they accumulate miles. Spencer agreed, expressing concern that “there are no over-age regulations for passenger cars.” He analogized to a popular automobile: “A 1975 Mustang might be safe, but a 2023 model is safer.”
Spencer added that 70% of Amtrak’s NEC riders are on Amfleet cars. He told mehe believes that “‘Safety First’ is not just a motto, it’s the way we run our careers” and “safety independence is very critical.” He pointed out that, since kinetic energy rises with the square of the speed of a moving train, higher speeds result in more-severe impact forces in an accident, saying “You have to respect the physics.” Note that the kinetic energy (in joules) is one-half of the product of the mass times the square of the velocity, the physics behind Reistrup’s and Spencer’s concern.
Spencer said that and Reistrip are calling attention to risks in the current NEC operation and infrastructure to prevent another wreck, like the one north of Philadelphia involving Train 188 on May 12, 2015, which killed eight people and injured more than 200. Spencer blamed the severity of that wreck in part on the immovable catenary poles along the line. Reistrup, now 90, agreed and said, “These poles in concrete are as old as I am.”
“We don’t want to wait for another wreck,” Spencer added. “We are in uncharted territory. When in doubt, take the safest route.”
Reistrup and Spencer believe that the AmeriStarRail plan they are promoting will get the mid-1970s-vintage cars off the NEC. They call for “hybrid” service with existing Acela equipment and new Siemens cars now on order. Their plan would extend the existing Acela equipment into 12-car trainsets with extra coaches to deliver “triple class” service, which would allow coach passengers to travel at the same speed as “extra fare” riders do on today’s Acela. According to Reistrup, this is an “equity issue” because coach passengers are relegated only to trains that are slower than Acela trains, for which the fares are higher. He also said that these “stretch trains” could hold 600 riders.
They claim that they can get private financing for the venture and, operationally. They would start by replacing the original late-1960s-vintage Metroliner cab cars in Keystone service between Harrisburg and New York immediately and running Siemens ACS-64 electric units on each end in pull-pull operation, to protect passengers and crew. The cab cars run on Keystone trains today in push-pull operation.
While Reistrup and Spencer acknowledge that there will still be some Amfleet I cars on the NEC for a while longer, they hope to see that equipment cascaded down to slower trains before they turn 50. Some of them are running today on New York State’s Empire Service, Midwest Corridor routes centered on Chicago, and California’s corridors. Under Amtrak’s ConnectsUS plan for 2035, Amfleet equipment could be used for new state-sponsored trains and corridors that Amtrak hopes to develop. It is too soon to know how many new trains will start running under the plan (we know only about Mobile-New Orleans so far), but there should be enough Amfleet equipment to run several routes if it is retired from service on the NEC before the new trains start running.
Spencer also suggested that some of it could be used on non-Amtrak routes with long running times that now use “commuter” equipment designed for local trains. One example is Long Island Rail Road service to Montauk and Greenport. Those lines require a three-hour running time to and from Penn Station New York, and Spencer said it would be much more comfortable for riders on Amfleet cars than on existing LIRR equipment. There are other relatively long non-Amtrak operations whose running time approaches those routes: the longest runs on Metrolink in Southern California, and the line between Hoboken and Port Jervis on NJ Transit, in cooperation with Metro-North on the New York State side, beyond Suffern.
Spencer told me he and Reistrup had expressed these concerns to the FRA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Jan. 4 but, at this writing are waiting for Amtrak to respond to their request for a meeting. “Although Amfleet cars, built in the 1970s, meet current FRA safety standards, they do not have the structural materials, safety features, technology and crash energy management systems found in the current Acela fleet or the next generation Alstom-built Acela fleet,” they noted “That is why AmeriStarRail belileves the safest course of action is to remove Amfleet cars from the high-speed Northeast Corridor service as soon as possible and replace them with newer safer, trainsets … It is unacceptable and unsafe for Amtrak to ignore the opportunity to meet and evaluate the unprecedented safety risks of operating half-century-old passenger cars at 125 mph when safer alternatives are readily available, without additional government grants. AmeriStarRail’s solution offers equitable safety for the 70% of Northeast Corridor passengers who ride the aging Amfleet cars because they can’t afford to ride the newer Acela trainsets equipped with the latest safety technology.”
FRA, Amtrak Respond
FRA is skeptical of Reistrup’s and Spencer’s claim, noting that, according to an FRA spokesperson, passenger cars are not subjected to the same age considerations as freight cars because “they are not subject to the extreme forces of loading and unloading associated with freight movements and switching operations. Generally speaking, the operation of rolling stock in passenger service involves considerably less wear and tear on all mechanical components. Amfleet I cars meet current federal safety standards set forth in 49 CFR 238 – Passenger Equipment Safety Standards. These cars are subject to extensive mechanical inspections, maintenance and repairs by Amtrak, and FRA approves those procedures in compliance with the aforementioned regulations. Regarding the overall safety of Amfleet cars, the manufacture date is far less important than the preventative and reparative maintenance that has occurred throughout the fleet’s lifecycle. The wheels, trucks, airbrake systems and carbody structural integrity are continuously monitored by Amtrak, and that work is reviewed by FRA. Specifically, Amfleet cars receive a daily shop and pit inspection, as well as a comprehensive inspection every 184 days.”
Amtrak also disputed Reistrup and Spencer’s warnings. Senior Public Relations Manager Beth K. Toll told me “there is no basis whatsoever for AmeristarRail’s claims that continued operation of Amfleet I cars on NEC trains is unsafe.” Toll also mentioned that Amtrak has ordered new cars for the NEC that will replace the Amfleet equipment, and that the new cars will be delivered, starting in 2025.
The NTSB did not return my request for comment.
A Deeper Dive
So, while Amtrak has discounted the validity of Reistrup’s and Spencer’s claims about the safety of Amfleet I cars at the speeds at which they are currently operated on the NEC, the issue could become moot in a few years, as the 1970s-vintage cars are retired completely or moved off the NEC to run elsewhere. With new cars being built and Amtrak expecting deliveries to start in about two years, the current practice of running the cars at high-performance speeds on the nation’s busiest and fastest passenger line may soon come to an end. In effect, while Amtrak confirms that it is safe to run those cars at the current NEC speeds, the railroad’s plans call for replacing them anyway.
There seems to be little reason to doubt Reistrup’s and Spencer’s sincerity in raising the issue. It is known that AmeriStarRail has proposed a plan for operating the NEC and its branches that would include more frequencies than Amtrak currently operates. I have reported that plan here, and have also reported that Amtrak is not interested in working with AmeriStarRail to implement the plan. Reistrup and Spencer cannot endear themselves to Amtrak by criticizing the railroad over a safety issue. To the contrary, criticizing a prospective partner in a deal for any reason does not increase the likelihood of that deal being consummated.
Nonetheless, Reistrup has earned credibility as the former President of Amtrak and, especially, as the person who ordered the Amfleet cars in the first place. Spencer has had a long railroad career, too. They took what appears to constitute a substantial business risk by raising their concerns.
The Broader Picture
Looking broadly at the current situation, veteran railroaders have raised a safety issue, and the railroad and the regulatory agency in question have expressed skepticism. Regarding accidents that involved Amfleet cars on the NEC, including the 2015 wreck of Train 188, , there appear to be intervening factors, like the immovable catenary poles sturdily mounted along the line, and human error. If anybody is able to allocate fault or find proximate causation in the event of a railroad accident, it is the NTSB, and that agency did not respond to my request to comment.
Still, railroad safety is in the news, especially since East Palestine. Congress is talking about stricter safety regulations, and the Ohio legislature went further (despite federal pre-emption). The public is becoming increasingly concerned about rail safety, especially on the freight side. It is reasonable to expect that the public will become concerned about passenger train safety.
Virtually all trains, freight and passenger (including on the NEC), arrive safely at their destinations. Accidents are extremely rare, and safety has been steadily improving, but even a few are too many. It seems reasonable to expect that any suggestion to improve safety is worth considering.
If anybody has an interest in making sure that trains are safe, at least on the passenger side, it is the riders. As with every policy consideration, the first step in maximizing safety or any other desirable goal is more information for the riding public. During my interview, Spencer summarized his and Reistrup’s concerns with a question: “Why is the backbone of our most-important service running with half-century-old equipment?” A lot of riders in the NEC could be wondering about that, too—if they even know. This issue will always be with us, in some form, and the more all of us know, the better.
David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also Chair of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.