Amtrak, California, and FRA team up for new HSR gear

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

A triad of U.S. HSR interests makes its move, upsetting some preconceived conventional wisdom involving the nation’s passenger rail outlook.

Caught by relative surprise, many rail advocates and industry observers tried hard to appear blasé at the news, formally announced Jan. 17, that Amtrak and the state of California would combine forces to order next-generation high speed rail rolling stock.

It’s a potentially substantial order for one of nine international equipment suppliers of HSR gear, according to Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, even as it strengthens the case for U.S. high speed rail on (eventually) a national scale, not just a series of remote, regional pockets.

Amtrak and the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) have issued a Request for Information (RFI) for 62 HSR trainsets, with 32 envisioned for Amtrak’s venerable Northeast Corridor, and 27 for the Golden State’s nascent intrastate HSR network, set to begin initial construction in the Central Valley this spring.

A Request for Proposal could be issued by this September, with an order placed during 2014, according to Amtrak.

The move prompted widespread speculation over its origins. Industry media, including Trains magazine (which broke the story) and Railway Age, offered after-the-fact analysis and commentary. FRA’s Szabo, in an interview with Railway Age, didn’t dismiss such analysis, but stated emphatically that one player in the arranged marriage had been overlooked: the FRA itself.

“There’s a missed story here; many in the industry didn’t realize where this industry is at already regarding lightweight equipment,” Szabo said. Contrary to widespread public perception, “The FRA wasn’t pressured or swayed to do this; we brought [the two HSR parties] together, because we already had made the change almost a year ago … to shoot for the highest level of standardization.

“It was an evolution FRA was making before I came here four years ago, but it’s certainly one I’ve made a priority. We were there over a year ago; perhaps we didn’t tell the story well,” Szabo observed.

The personalities involved surely didn’t hurt when it came to aligning joint interests. In making the formal announcement, Szabo was joined by CHSRA Executive Director Jeffrey Morales, a former transportation staff aide to Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) from 1983 to 1993 and deeply involved in defending Amtrak funding. Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman preceded Szabo as head of the FRA during the George W. Bush administration.

New approach to U.S. HSR speed and safety

Boardman’s announcement in December resetting Amtrak’s HSR plans was a prelude to the joint Amtrak/California HSR pact, and Szabo praised the move, saying the new approach is “about not only meeting immediate needs of the Corridor, but that nothing eliminates the ability to go the next step.” Lightweight HSR gear “will do both; meet the needs today, and continue step by step by step.” It also will dramatically improve potential energy efficiency, he adds.

The combined Amtrak/California order presumably would offer economies of scale for both entities and an equipment supplier, with Bombardier Transportation, Siemens Mobility, Patentes Talgo, Alstom, and Ansaldo among those already making their interest known. California seeks HSR equipment capable of top speeds of 220 mph, while Amtrak’s mid-term outlook envisions 160 mph top speeds on the existing NEC through Maryland and New Jersey. Advanced design, engineering, and other pre-construction activities already are under way for the $450 million project to boost speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph along the 24-mile “New Jersey Raceway” between Trenton and New Brunswick, N.J. The project includes upgrading track, electrical power, signal systems, and overhead catenary.

The differential in top speeds between systems isn’t an impediment, says Szabo. California initially will be operating “in a mixed-use environment on both of the bookends. So the approach on the Northeast Corridor isn’t substantially different. Obviously there are more challenges for Amtrak because you have an existing situation there, very complex, a lot of mixed use, so it’ll be easier for California to get to 220.”

And, to the delight (expressed or veiled) of perennial critics of FRA, Amtrak, and U.S. high speed rail efforts in general, more of the focus will be on crash avoidance. That’s been incorporated into the Engineering Task Force 2 (ETF2) standards developed by industry participants and the FRA, outlining safety approaches for trains operating between 125 mph and 220 mph. “We allow the highest level of flexibility to achieve the best safety outcome; the outcome is the goal,” Szabo stresses. “We’re not looking to build tanks the way we did 15 years ago.”

Szabo notes neither Amtrak or California can just “pick up a European high speed rail equipment model” for off-the-shelf use. “But the platform will be the same” with only minor modifications needed, he says. The Request for Information made last month reflects that: “We chose to go that approach, and issue the letter … and then start the laborious project of doing the regulatory” work. “Again, you [the media] missed it and we didn‘t do a good job telling you about it.”

Long-range, a national system

Szabo also disputed statements from industry pundits critical of the Obama Administration—and by extension, the FRA—for its “diffuse” approach in advancing high-performance passenger rail in numerous locations, as opposed to concentrating in just one or two ideal spots. (Szabo, however, accepts the differentiation of high speed rail [HSR] and higher-speed rail [HrSR] as “a useful distinction.”)

“We’re required to play the cards that we’re dealt,” he said. “The requirements Congress gave us through the Recovery Act required us to fund projects ready to go, and that were able to meet statutory deadlines.” Funds could go only to those states or entities (such as Amtrak) that chose to reply and those who qualified. “There was no possibility to strictly fund a single project or two,” he said.

“We did ensure that there was critical mass achieved by focusing the investments on five mega-regions—those with high population density for high-quality intercity rail to succeed,” he points out.

Moreover, the seemingly scattered and separate projects at present offer the potential for “interconnectivity,” Szabo said. “It has always envisioned that this is a system” involving three tiers of service: true HSR at up to 220 mph, as per California’s statewide plan; HrSR, exemplified by ongoing work on the Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Detroit routes; and feeder routes, bumping emerging lines “such as in Maine and Vermont” up to 79 mph.

Szabo sees the multi-tiered approach not as diffuse, but instead a flexible way to advance passenger rail in ways meaningful to actual riders. “An analogy is the road network,” he says. “The Interstate highways don’t work all by themselves; they interconnect with federal roads, state roads, county roads, local roads. In much the same way, we need a comprehensive passenger rail network” using more than one performance measure.

Asked if the multi-targeted approach is just a political posture, Szabo replies, “As [Transportation] Secretary Ray LaHood has said, ‘Good policy is good politics.’” If competition arises among the states, it aids in “funding the best of those applications … to give us the opportunities for success.” And far from being a top-down venue, “We meet with local leaders, mayors, governors, chambers of commerce. It’s an important issue to communities all around the country.”

Such input has prompted a ripple effect already in many cities not generally considered part of the NEC ridershed, Szabo says, offering the slowly emerging rail activity in Virginia and North Carolina as examples. “With the economic and population growth you have there, the distance between points you have there; it is not a stretch” to envision Boston-to-Atlanta service. “Few might take such a route, even at high speeds, from endpoint to endpoint, but consider all the overlapping markets,” he says.

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