It won’t be until sometime in 2024 that Amtrak’s new Acela II high-speed trainsets for the Northeast Corridor (NEC) will begin revenue service, three years behind schedule, as problems during testing have surfaced, The Washington Post has reported.
The Alstom-built, 160-mph “Avelia Liberty” trainsets, of which there are 28, are experiencing “complications in completing testing … along the [NEC’s] decrepit infrastructure,” wrote Post reporter Luz Lazo. They “need more analysis to ensure they can safely operate on the curvy and aging tracks between Washington and Boston.” Numerous delays have been attributable to “unforeseen complexities in testing and computer simulation processes required by the Federal Railroad Administration. Amtrak and … Alstom have cited some compatibility hiccups between the high-tech train, modeled after those in operation across Europe, and infrastructure that dates back 190 years in some areas. The latest hurdle, officials said, involves testing the train’s wheels, particularly at higher speeds.”
“Modeling of the wheel-to-track interface is particularly complex due to age, condition, and specific characteristics of Amtrak infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor, and especially the existing tracks,” Alstom told the Post, adding that it has been “conducting extensive investigations” to ensure safe operation and is “confident that this extensive process will demonstrate compatibility of the latest generation of high-speed technology with existing infrastructure.” So far, six trainsets have been delivered; a seventh is nearing completion.
“Further refinement of analysis, simulations and testing” are required, Amtrak told the Post. “We want our customers to experience these new trains as soon as possible, but Amtrak cannot operate them for passenger service until Alstom has completed testing and meets all safety requirements.”
Among the problems encountered have been pantograph/catenary loss of contact on the older, variable-tension system between Washington and New Haven, Conn. at higher speeds. Wheel/rail interface problems, which reportedly did not surface during high-speed testing on the RTT (Railroad Test Track) at the ENSCO-operated TTC in Pueblo, Colo., have occurred on the NEC. This particular problem appears to echo similar issues encountered during testing and early revenue service more than 20 years ago of the original, non-articulated Acela trainsets, which are much heavier than the new articulated equipment meant to replace them—25-ton power car axle loads on the so-called “Fast Pig,” compared to 17.5 tons on the Avelia Liberty. In addition to premature wheelset wear, the original equipment experienced cracked yaw dampers, upper carbody pantograph shrouding that peeled off at speed, and inboard brake discs that disintegrated.
“Decrepit” and “curvy and aging” are exaggerated terms for infrastructure that, despite needing major capital improvements, hosts more than 2,000 intercity and commuter trains every day. The Northeast Corridor Commission has identified more than 150 projects worth close to $120 billion, including upgrades or replacements of 15 bridges and tunnels more than 100 years old, needed to bring the NEC into a state of good repair. Amtrak is getting $66 billion in new federal funding for SOGR and expansion projects, much of which is for the NEC. Among the major NEC projects are the Gateway Program and the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel replacement.