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OPINION - How will it run?

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  Today Amtrak begins wasting more money. They’re unveiling their new electric locomotives at a big event in Philadelphia. Vice President Biden, the best friend Amtrak has ever had in high office, will christen the new engine called the Cities Sprinter.

Everyone in the railroad industry knows this rule: new equipment never works as designed. Locomotives, passenger cars, sleeping cars, and dining cars are multi-million dollar pieces of complex equipment. There’s always something that doesn’t work. Smart, cost-conscious railroads shun new designs. They buy tried and true equipment that’s been de-bugged by somebody else. Want it to look new? Then get a cool paint scheme and dress it up once you buy it.

But Amtrak is fixated on new stuff. The results have been disastrous… and at tremendous cost for a railroad that never seems to have enough money.

One of the fancies of Amtrak and its overlords in Congress is that new equipment should be from America. That’s silly. That almost guarantees that new trains will be new and unproven designs, since we have no passenger railroads left in our country. The result is we turn down trains that have been running reliably for years in Europe and Japan. We decide against importing off-the-shelf, fully de-bugged equipment and instead we build something new from the ground up. The result is never pretty. And the ‘Made in America’ requirement is a mirage. Siemens, a German company, is the manufacturer of the new Cities Sprinter engines. They’ll be assembled in the United States.

The Cities Sprinter will replace the AEM-7s, which are the electric engines that have pulled trains between New York City and Washington since the 1970s. Each engine has rolled up more than 3.5-million miles, and they are literally worn out. (The AEM-7s was the last time Amtrak did something right – they’re Swedish engines with an exterior shell designed by GM’s Electric Motive Division. They’ve been reliable engines.) Amtrak tried to replace the AEM’s once before. The HH8 engine, made by Alstom, was the engine-portion of the high speed Acela trains. These engines, a textbook case of why you don’t want newly designed rail equipment, were withdrawn from service after only two years. They were averaging a breakdown every 13 days.

The Acela, Amtrak’s high speed train in the northeast, is also a built-from-the-ground-up failure. These train sets were supposed to be able to tilt into super-elevated turns, allowing for higher speed in the curvy sections of track between New Haven and Boston. Today they operate in ‘non tilt’ mode; no one checked whether there’s enough clearance on the main line. There isn’t. A train that tilts would crash into a train on the adjacent track. After running for a year Amtrak discovered cracks in the Acela’s wheel-trucks. They were taken out of service and rebuilt. All of these problems were unnecessary: Amtrak tested high speed trains from Germany and Switzerland for a year before declining to buy either. Some members of Congress insisted on the new “American” train. The Acela is also American-in-name-only. It’s built by Bombardier of Canada, and assembled in the U.S.

The earlier attempt at an American high speed train – the Metroliner – was also a failure. It had a nasty habit of catching on fire from shorted-out electrical components mounted underneath the cars instead of on-top or inside. Those trains eventually had their traction engines removed and were used as unpowered passenger cars for another 15 years.

The one thing Amtrak has gotten better at is pushing the costs of debugging new trains onto its suppliers. Bombardier had reliability and repair cost causes written into its Acela contract. Siemens has similar requirements for the new City Sprinters. Maybe things will turn out differently. Only three engines are being delivered to start, and we’ll see how they perform over the next few months. They’ve already spent a lot of time on the test-track in Pueblo, Colorado. The rest of the order – another 67 engines – won’t be delivered until the end of 2014. That might be enough time to work out the problems and get things right. But with Amtrak’s track record, don’t count on it.

Chris Conley

Image: City Sprinter, provided by Amtrak