Happening Now

Going Shopping For Shiny New Coaches

January 23, 2019

by Jim Mathews

Late Friday, Amtrak let the world know that it's ready to get industry to bid on supplying "up to 75 trainsets" worth of equipment to replace elderly Amfleet Is. It's great to see Amtrak step up to the plate and start making good on long-overdue promises to get cracking on upgrading coaches for the modern passenger.

Sure, it's a baby step...but it's the second step in as many months (following on the heels of the locomotive order) and it can't come soon enough.

Just before Amtrak announced the diesel locomotive order, your Board member Dave Randall noted the scale of the challenge Amtrak faces in replacing its tired fleet.

"In 2012, Amtrak developed a comprehensive Fleet Strategy which provided a plan for initial replacement and continuing replacement to keep average fleet age constant. To date, only a few of the programs identified in the plan have been undertaken: 70 ACS64, 130 Midwest & California Single Level cars, and 28 Avelia sets," he said.

Apart from the new diesels -- which really are great news for the long-distance trains on the National Network -- and the trainsets contemplated in Friday's announcement, "the rest of the Amtrak fleet continues to age with no immediate plan for replacement. It should be noted that Amtrak has definitely decided NOT to rebuild any of the cars 37 years old and older simply because they have too many miles and they are suffering metal fatigue."

As of last year, the 461 Amfleet Is ranged from 41 to 44 years old; the 145 Amfleet IIs are about 38 years old.

Amtrak acknowledged in its statement Friday night that it's long overdue, adding that the 2017 "refresh" was -- as advertised -- a temporary measure to bridge the gap until the new equipment can start hitting the rails.

"The base order for the new replacements includes 75 trainsets or their railcar equivalents with options to provide equipment for future service growth along the NEC and other state-supported routes," Amtrak said. "While Amtrak has recently refurbished the interiors of its Amfleet I railcars with new seating upholstery and carpeting, the age of the fleet and industry-standard lead times for new equipment requires that the replacement effort for this work-horse fleet begin now."

The list of improvements is exciting, with better Wi-Fi, better seats, weather-tight doors and vestibules (have you ever had the chance to "shovel snow" out of a vestibule while de-trainng?), along with this intriguing statement: "as well as freedom to move throughout the train conveniently." Getting coaches with open vestibules, a la Acela or Brightline, could be a fantastic and very welcome improvement, especially for those relying on wheelchairs or other assisted-mobility devices to move through the train.

The Amfleet I's bulletproof prison windows will be gone, and the spec also calls for removing the binary "refrigerated" or "broiling" air-conditioning settings. I think I'll welcome those changes the most.

A lot of folks have already seized on the "bi-directional operating capability" to assume that seats will be split with half the coach sitting rear-facing. Amtrak is taking bids through March 15, and nothing is set in stone. There are many ways to achieve "bi-directional operating capability," and I wouldn't panic just yet. Seats can be turned on nearly all modern coaches, and I'd be surprised if fixed rear-facing seats emerged in the winning entry.

I think Amtrak should be applauded for moving ahead with long-distance locomotives and the Amfleet I replacements, with an eye toward improving the passenger experience on board.

My only disappointment is that we're not getting more. Your Equipment Committee has advanced a vision for a larger order which we think would be good for passengers, for growth and for the industry: boost the buy to 1,000 units over five years, replacing all coaches over 37 to 50 years old. Some of you may recall that I came to the Association from the aviation industry, where maintaining the "U.S. industrial base" in critical aviation equipment was an overriding concern for policymakers. The same concept applies here. A steady stream of orders and solid prospects gives the entire supply chain confidence to invest. They'll hire craftsmen. They'll build plants. They'll do research and development (R&D) aimed at continuous improvement, to develop modular upgrades that can be injected into the fleet. And the unit cost for coaches will be driven lower, by volume, by economies of scale, and by the need to remain competitive.

Amtrak has reserved the right to award the contract either in a single buy or with multiple buys from multiple vendors. After five years we at RailPassengers think passenger car construction should continue at a rate of somewhere around 50 per year to keep the supply chain flowing. Amtrak could use these to replace Superliner IIs and Viewliners Is when the time comes, and to accommodate ridership growth.

And it might just get those multiple vendors to sharpen their pencils by March 15...

What improvements are on your wish list for the coach manufacturers?