Amtrak CEO seeks relaxed safety regulations to make way for high-speed trains
An Amtrak Acela speeds by the SEPTA Prospect Park-Moore commuter station south of Philadelphia on the Northeast Corridor. John Mueller / Flickr.com
Outdated rail infrastructure and stringent regulations are not the only reasons that U.S. train travel falls so far behind options in other countries; Congressional disapproval of public funding also restricts the rail company’s growth.
U.S. crashworthiness standards force Amtrak to use trains that have locomotives on both ends and are slower and heavier than bullet trains used in Europe and Asia, Boardman said in an interview. Those standards reflect that U.S. passenger trains often share tracks with freight railroads rather than operating on their own lines.
Existing standards apply to trains traveling as much as 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour). Writing new rules that relax railcar structural-strength requirements for faster trains “would allow for less use of fuel, quicker acceleration, a different performance profile,” Boardman, 64, said. “What we’re really looking for is a performance specification here.”
Amtrak last month announced it would seek bids to replace its 12-year-old fleet of 20 Acela trains operating between Washington and Boston instead of adding two cars to each train, a plan its inspector general questioned as too expensive. The Acela carried about 3.4 million passengers and produced about a fourth of Amtrak’s $2 billion in ticket revenue for the year ended Sept. 30.
Boardman, in the interview, said he’d like to add at least 10 to 12 trains before beginning to retire the current Acela fleet. The cost, for which Amtrak said it will seek information from potential suppliers in early 2013, may be $30 million to $40 million per trainset, Boardman said.
“It depends on how many we actually would purchase and whether anybody else in this country is going to move forward with high-speed trainsets,” he said.
Amtrak in 1996 signed a contract valued at $1.2 billion to buy the original Acelas, which operate much more slowly than their maximum speed on most of the Northeast Corridor due to the limitations of tracks and tunnels.
Companies including Siemens AG, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd. may want to compete with Bombardier Inc. and Alstom SA, the joint suppliers of Acela equipment used since the service’s start 12 years ago. Amtrak is subject to rules that require its equipment to be made in the U.S.
Safety standards for passenger trains operating at more than 150 mph are being developed, Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said in an e-mail. Amtrak is “working with FRA and other members of the Railroad Safety Advisory Council to better define the car strength criteria for higher-speed passenger equipment,” he said.
Amtrak’s long-term plan for high-speed service in the Northeast envisions those trains running on dedicated tracks.
Boardman, who was FRA administrator from 2005 to 2008, said he’ll also challenge Congress this year to commit to maintaining taxpayer funding for long-distance train service outside the Northeast Corridor, so it can get the best value on equipment purchases.
Amtrak will be up for reauthorization by Congress in 2013, as the railroad’s chief critic in the House, Florida Republican John Mica, relinquishes his seat as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee due to term limits.
Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who has said taxpayer subsidies for Amtrak are inevitable, will assume the panel’s chairmanship this month. Amtrak has never made an annual profit and received about $1.4 billion in taxpayer aid in the 2012 fiscal year.
“Until Congress establishes that reliable funding source for rail infrastructure investment, it’s going to be very difficult to take advantage of millions of dollars available from the private sector,” Boardman said.
Boardman, who became Amtrak’s CEO in 2008, said it won’t be easy to convince budget-conscious lawmakers to spend more money on a transportation service they sometimes hold out as an example of waste. Mica held a series of hearings last year to criticize Amtrak’s subsidies, especially on long-distance trains, and its $151 billion proposal to build a high-speed system in the Northeast.
“It’s always that way in business; there are always scarce resources for the things that you want to do,” he said. “So you continue to look for the returns. Those are not always returns in cash money.”
Mica’s staff in September released a report showing taxpayers have provided Amtrak subsidies of $50.97 per ticket sold for the past five years, an amount Boardman said needs to be compared with taxpayer support for highways and airports.
President Barack Obama made establishing high-speed rail passenger service in the U.S. a priority shortly after taking office in 2009. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week in a blog post said that vision still exists even after states including Florida and Ohio rejected grant money they’d received to build such projects.
Editors: Bernard Kohn and Daniel Enoch.
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