CARRYING 90-100 trains every weekday and 50-60 at weekends, the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel is a vital piece of infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor (NEC), the 735km Washington, DC - New York City - Boston railway, the United States’ premier passenger route.

Yet the 2.25km tunnel is nearly 150 years old and it shows. Excessive water infiltration, a deteriorating structure and a sinking floor have meant that maintenance costs have soared. With tight curves limiting speeds to 50km/h, the tunnel is also a troublesome pinch point on the network, justifiably earning its label as the NEC’s biggest bottleneck between Washington and New Jersey. Real relief will only come with full replacement, which is now in the works.

The planned dual-bore Frederick Douglass Tunnel is the centrepiece of a 6.4km realignment of this section of the NEC that will support speeds of up to 160km/h when it opens at the end of this decade. Amtrak commenced early construction works on the project earlier this year and attention is now shifting to selecting contractors for three major works packages.

That Amtrak is able to proceed with the long-awaited project is the result of renewed and unprecedented, certainly in recent times, government support for public railway infrastructure spending.

Funding for up to $US 4.5bn of the $US 6bn project is set to be provided under the federal government’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, US president, Mr Joe Biden’s, signature domestic policy achievement. Biden visited Baltimore in January to show his support for the tunnel replacement project and wider rail infrastructure upgrades that the $US 1 trillion total package of investment will fund.

Amtrak is receiving $US 22bn under the Infrastructure Bill, split between the NEC ($US 6bn) and the wider national network ($US 16bn). This will help the railway to replace old and obsolete assets, including much of its rolling stock fleet (see panel below).

A further $US 44bn is available in grant funding from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to support various improvements to passenger and freight railways. Of this sum, the $US 36bn Federal-State Partnership grant programme includes $US 24bn to support NEC infrastructure improvements such as the Frederick Douglass Tunnel, with $US 12bn available to fund upgrades on other corridors. A further $US 5bn is available through the FRA Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) programme and $US 3bn under the FRA Railroad Crossing Elimination programme.

Fleet replacement drives service expansion

AMTRAK confirmed on August 21 that it has exercised an option with Siemens Mobility for a further 10 200km/h Airo long-distance passenger trains to meet “surging demand” for rail transport.
The order takes the total number of trains that Siemens is supplying to 83. Amtrak awarded the initial $US 3.4bn contract for 73 of the multi-power push-pull trains in July 2021. This comprises 50 diesel-electric, 15 battery-electric hybrids, and eight US EPA Tier 4-compliant diesel locomotives and push-pull coaches.

Amtrak is set to deploy the fleet on the following services, replacing single deck Amfleet I coaches: Northeast Regional, Empire Service, Virginia Services, Keystone Service, Downeaster, Cascades, Maple Leaf, New Haven/Springfield Service, Palmetto, Carolinian, Pennsylvanian, Vermonter, Ethan Allen Express and Adirondack.

Manufacturing of the trains from the initial order is underway at Siemens’ plant in Sacramento, California, and the first sets are on schedule to enter service in 2026. Amtrak says it retains options from the original contract to order more trains in the future.

Testing of new Acela high-speed trains for the NEC is also finally drawing to a close. Alstom is supplying 28 Avelia Liberty high-speed trains (pictured left) under a contract awarded in August 2016. The $US 2.4bn investment also includes associated infrastructure upgrades. And while they were initially due to enter service in autumn 2021, continuing delays have pushed this back to 2024.

The trains are formed of two compact power cars and nine articulated intermediate trailer cars and will operate at up to 257km/h on the NEC. They will replace the existing 20-strong fleet of 240km/h Acela Express trains, also built by Alstom, which entered service in 2000.

Amtrak says the new Acela fleet will “upgrade the travel experience for millions of passengers and set the stage for the next generation of train travel in America and on the NEC.”

Amtrak has also upgraded its locomotive fleet in recent years, ordering 125 Siemens ALC-42 Charger locomotives, which have been deployed on long distance routes, and 33 SC-44 Chargers, which are in service on state-supported routes in California, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington State. Cummins US EPA Tier 4 QSK95 engines power both versions.

The condition of Amtrak’s long-distance coach fleet is a check on its ambitions to grow long-distance services. As a result, the national passenger operator is set to go out to tender for a contract to supply new passenger coaches for long-distance services, a contract described by Gardner as “the largest passenger train order in the United States since the 1940s.”

The new fleets will replace 800 coaches in use on 14 overnight routes. They include Superliner I and II double-deck sleeping, lounge, and dining cars as well as Viewliner I and II single-deck sleeping, dining and baggage cars, and Amfleet II business class and catering cars.

Amtrak says 10 manufacturers submitted proposals during the preliminary request for information stage launched in December 2022. The formal tendering process is set to begin by the end of this year or in early 2024, according to Gardner, who says delivery will depend on the number of bidders and their readiness to start production.

“I can tell you that I won’t be satisfied with how long it is going to take,” he says. “I want equipment tomorrow, not a decade from now, but it is going to take some time. There is no question that we will pushing to get deliveries as soon as we can but of course we need a quality product, and in the long-distance arena it is a very unique product; two-night overnight trains are rare.

“These trains are really like three trains in one. It’s a complicated fleet to design and build, but we’re excited. We’re excited by the interest that exists and I think it is going to be a chance for the industry to really gear up and create capacity that will support not only Amtrak in the future, but the expansion of rail that we see as necessary for the nation’s mobility needs.”

Amtrak has already submitted applications worth a combined $US 8bn to partially fund 16 proposed infrastructure projects to improve long-distance services and 14 to update NEC infrastructure (see panel at foot of page). Decisions on these applications are expected by the end of this year.

In addition, Amtrak will use the directly allocated funding to complete the remaining upgrades to stations across the national network so they are compliant with national accessibility standards. It is aiming to complete this work by the end of this decade. It will also work to update core systems and facilities such as reservation and back-office systems. Many of these are now reaching the end of their useful life and new technologies and systems are now needed to support the high levels of expected future demand for Amtrak services.

Amtrak describes the Infrastructure Bill as a once in a generation opportunity for itself and passenger rail to play a central role in improving how people move. Its CEO, Mr Stephen Gardner, reinforces the point by describing the bill as “something that Amtrak has waited 50 years to see.”

“We think there is really strong demand for passenger rail,” says Gardner, who was speaking exclusively to IRJ. “This past month [July] is the first month where we’ve exceeded both revenue and ridership compared with pre-pandemic levels. It just shows that there’s strong interest and market need where we have service. Our goals are to double our pre-pandemic ridership by 2040.”

“These trains are really like three trains in one. It’s a complicated fleet to design and build, but we’re excited.”

Stephen Gardner

With Amtrak carrying 32.5 million passengers in 2019, this equates to around 65 million annual passengers within the next 17 years.

For Long Distance, the blueprint for this growth plan is the Amtrak Connects Us vision, which was presented in June 2021. Gardner says that as well as improving existing corridors and service levels, the plan is to return passenger rail to more places in America which can support it, and “where rail can play a meaningful role in mobility, creating economic opportunity, and addressing the huge carbon challenge.”

Specifically, Connects Us proposes service improvements on 25 existing routes and introducing 39 entirely new services. If realised, the plan would bring passenger service to almost every major US city, adding an extra 20 million journeys annually. This is double the level of service currently provided on state-supported routes and the long-distance network.

While Amtrak has unveiled ambitious expansion plans before, this was arguably without the financial backing to actually deliver these projects. But walking the walk inevitably brings new challenges.

Chief among these is development of the human resource capability within Amtrak to deliver these improvement programmes. Gardner reports that Amtrak is in the midst of recruiting 7000 new staff across the organisation. The bulk of these new hires will replace train service crew, including conductors, drivers and station staff, many of whom retired during and in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The last year-and-a-half has been focused on rebuilding that core team to meet service level needs, and we’ve made great progress,” Gardner says. “That’s required the company to develop a whole new programme of being an employer of choice, of really going out and actively bringing new folks into our industry, something that we really haven’t had to do in a major way before.”

The railway is also focusing on hiring people to meet the need for greater expertise in construction, engineering and design-related roles. “That’s the crafts people out in the field, maintaining and constructing, and improving our infrastructure on the NEC,” Gardner says. “It is also a whole series of new engineers and designers, programme managers and project professionals who are joining the company and see a really unprecedented opportunity to be part of these legacy projects. People will be building things that will be in service for 200 years.”

To support its recruitment efforts, Amtrak has developed new partnerships with its staff unions, a new apprenticeship programme and renewed partnerships with universities and community colleges to build on-the-job skills and training programmes.

Amtrak CEO, Stephen Gardner.

The fight for skills is intense. Years of under-investment in general infrastructure means that the industrial capacity is lacking in the US to deliver the much-needed fixes to the crumbling roads, bridges, and tunnels that the Infrastructure Bill is targeting. There simply aren’t enough skilled craftspeople to meet demand. There are similarly an insufficient number of contractors of the scale necessary to deliver billion-dollar infrastructure projects.

As well as skills, observers say that the general ability to deliver major infrastructure projects is hampered in the US by complicated planning and public approvals processes. Project delivery tends to be extremely slow, adding to the pressure, and expensive: the US was found to be the costliest country for construction in a recent report by British consultancy Turner & Townsend. Six American cities are classed in the top 10 in the world where it is most expensive to build new infrastructure, with New York ranked first.

Supply chain issues are a factor in this rating and there is likely to be a dog fight to secure the key materials needed for such a vast array of projects. “Just think about the amount of copper, steel and concrete that is necessary across all of these infrastructure segments,” says Gardner, who concedes that Amtrak’s is just one of “many mouths to feed.”

Yet he says that the railway will do all it can to be an efficient partner and to hold its contractors to account. And with much of the preliminary environmental and design work already completed for many of its biggest projects, he believes Amtrak is in a relatively strong position despite the scale of the task at hand.

“They are complicated projects - unfortunately, easy and rail don’t tend to go together,” Gardner says. “But a number of projects are reaching the stage where they can go out for construction. We’re still in the early throes of that activity, so we will see, but we’re working hard to be an attractive partner and project for our contracting community and a place where people can get big work done that we can all be proud of.”

Political football

That Amtrak has the confidence to proceed in this competitive arena is the result of the unprecedented political support it has been awarded by the Biden administration. The state-owned company has not always been the flavour of the month in Washington, often becoming a political football in wider macro-economic disputes in Congress, to the ultimate detriment of its ability to invest and plan for the future.

The tide may have ever so slightly turned. Gardner says he sees bi-partisan political support for Amtrak and a general recognition that passenger rail is viable across the United States.

“When push comes to shove, people support the services that connect communities,” Gardner says. “Our job is to use the resources that we’ve been given to make meaningful progress. I think the incredible resumption of demand on our network… is a really compelling point and I think proves that this is a mode of transportation that is needed.”

A recent study commissioned by Amtrak emphasises the strong swell of public support for growing its network. Conducted by the Mellman Group, it found that 81% of voters surveyed want their state to invest in bringing more passenger rail services to their local area. 83% were found to support passenger rail investment projects in the Infrastructure Bill.

“Amtrak has a job to do on behalf of the public, and we have a right to use the railways of the US.”

Stephen Gardner

This sentiment is backed up by examples from across the country where the case and support for growing Amtrak services is strong. These include mature programmes to expand service in Virginia and North Carolina as well as in states with only limited or no service at all, but which Gardner says are eager to add passenger rail, such as Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Utah. He also reports strong backing for the expansion of service between Chicago and Minneapolis/St Paul, and the reintroduction of the Gulf service connecting Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. In the short term, Amtrak is also working with the FRA to introduce daily service on The Cardinal and Sunset Limited, two routes which currently operate three days a week.

But Amtrak anticipates much of the expected ridership growth up to 2040 to come on routes of less than 1200km, the threshold for long distance. Improving rolling stock will go a long way to boosting the attractiveness of its services as will increasing the frequency of service. Yet much of the expansion plans outlined in Connect Us rely on using existing lines owned by private freight railways. Building a better relationship with these host railways is therefore critical to Amtrak’s success.

The national passenger operator has mixed relationships with its 30 or so partner railways, according to Gardner. “It runs the gamut from really tight and good cooperation to less engagement,” he says.

“Our goal is to try and build a focused partnership with all of our hosts,” Gardner continues. “Amtrak has a job to do on behalf of the public, and we have a right to use the railways of the US to accomplish that mission. But we want to find opportunities to do that in a way that will enhance the whole network because we believe rail’s role in the United States has to grow full stop. We need passenger and freight to be able to do more to meet the climate challenge and mobility needs.”

Gardner is especially optimistic about building bridges with the new cohort of executives leading the Class 1 freight railways. His focus is on identifying common goals for investment in the network that will help to deliver improved or new passenger services while also supporting the goals of the host partners.

“I think there are a lot of places where that’s true, where there’s old infrastructure and there’s a reliability problem for both passenger and freight that we should be focused on resolving,” Gardner says. “We also understand that there are capacity constraints, but we also expect that the railroads will provide the preference that passenger trains are due and run their railroads well so that our trains can stay in slot.

“We’ve got the world’s largest railway network, we just don’t use it for moving people so much. But we can use more of it for this purpose through good collaboration with our host railroads and with support from the government.”

Texas Central

This is also an opportunity to further grow collaboration with some of the other groups developing passenger rail within the US. Amtrak announced a partnership with Texas Central last month under which both parties will collaborate to apply for federal funding for the project to build a 379km high-speed line between Dallas and Houston.

Amtrak says that the high-speed project would complement its new and improved corridor and long-distance services in the southern region. Crucially, Gardner says Amtrak will bring its experience and knowledge of US rail markets to support further development of the high-speed project, which had appeared to hit the buffers in mid-2022. The next stage of work will focus on getting deeper into the programme and updating all of the key inputs and assumptions. “We will then see where the plan takes us,” he says.

As for similar partnerships with groups such as California High Speed Rail and Brightline - which is developing a high-speed project to connect Los Angeles with Las Vegas and is also in the process of extending its Florida operations - Gardner says that Amtrak is keeping an open mind.

“At the very minimum we want to make sure that the networks connect so that people can use rail for their journey,” Gardner says. “I think there’s a lot of things Amtrak can bring to the table for these services that create value. We are owned by the federal government and exist to further rail mobility in the US. Our view is that we should try and do that wherever we can to make a difference and help support the mode.”

In the context of a European passenger network trying to compete with road and air, Amtrak’s ambitions are modest. But rather than fighting for its life as it seems to have been doing throughout its existence, it can be optimistic about its future.

Long-awaited improvements to the NEC will safeguard this infrastructure for the long-term while Amtrak could soon offer people a new and viable alternative transport option in many parts of the country that suffer from traffic congestion and where getting around can be difficult. The list of challenges is long. And there will doubtless be setbacks in the next few years given the scale of work required. But Amtrak does appear to be at the forefront of a new and exciting era for passenger rail in the United States. It will be fascinating to see how it fairs in the next few years.

Amtrak seeks grants for NEC and long-distance upgrades

THE NEC projects are worth a combined $US 7.3bn and Amtrak says it submitted funding requests through the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grant Programme by the March 27 deadline. It has been working on the design and engineering phases and is now seeking funding to commerce construction on the following projects and programmes:

  • Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel replacement (Frederick Douglass Tunnel)
  • East River Tunnel rehabilitation
  • Susquehanna River Rail Bridge
  • Connecticut River Bridge replacement
  • Springfield Line: Connecticut River Bridge replacement project.
  • Bush River Bridge replacement
  • Gunpowder River Bridge replacement
  • Pelham Bay Bridge replacement
  • Washington DC - New Jersey infrastructure renewal and speed improvement
  • New Haven - Providence capacity planning study, and
  • Baltimore Penn station master plan.

The applications also cover multiple Phase II Gateway Programme projects, including New York Penn station expansion, Sawtooth bridges replacement, Highline renewal and the Dock Bridge state of good repair project.

The long-distance service applications total about $US 716m. They comprise:

  • multiple New York - Cincinnati - Chicago Cardinal and New Orleans - Los Angeles Sunset Limited service improvements, including increasing to daily operation from three times per week at present; increasing Cardinal train speeds and reducing travel times between Indianapolis and Dyer, Indiana; and returning Sunset Limited service to Phoenix, Arizona
  • Chicago - Los Angeles Southwest Chief signalling modernisation between Colorado and New Mexico
  • Chicago - Seattle/Portland Empire Builder rail improvements in Montana
  • I-20 Crescent (New York - New Orleans) service extension from Meridian, Mississippi, through Jackson and Shreveport to Dallas, Texas, and
  • construction of a new Crystal City station that would bring Amtrak service to Arlington, Virginia.