DETROIT – Amtrak is betting big on a return of ridership.
The nation’s passenger railroad wants to replace its nearly half-century-old fleet with state-of-the-art trains that can operate on electricity or diesel fuel. It plans to spend $7.3 billion to buy 83 trains made by Siemens, with options to buy more if ridership increases. Funding must still be approved by Congress, but William Flynn, Amtrak's CEO, says he's confident it will happen.
If it doesn't, then Amtrak will finance the trains and repay its debt with money from state train services and passenger fares.
The more efficient trains, which will be built in California, are scheduled to start running in 2024. They will have more comfortable seating, better ventilation systems, power outlets and USB ports, Wi-Fi, and panoramic windows. Many can run on either diesel fuel or battery power when it's needed.
The Associated Press spoke recently with Flynn about the new trains, how Amtrak ridership is recovering from the pandemic and how infrastructure measures may boost intercity rail service.
The interview was edited for clarity and length.
Q: How will these new trains help passengers?
A: These are 125 mph operating speed trains. They’ll make some trips shorter because in some states we have to change locomotives from electric to diesel. The new trains are dual-mode. It will absolutely be a better passenger experience in the cabin itself. We're very focused on our (Americans with Disabilities Act) riders and have worked with the ADA community to make sure we have incorporated attributes that are important to them. Certainly in some cases where track is reconstructed, speeds and trip times will improve.
Q: How fast can these trains go?
A: 125 mph (201 kilometers per hour). The limiting factor in most cases is track construction, where we’re talking about 90 mph (145 kilometers per hour) and less, depending on the state and the condition of the track. We’re talking about track that, for the most part, is owned by freight railroads that we have access to.
Q: Will these 83 trains replace what you already have, or will you be able to expand service?
A: It is more like-for-like replacement than expansion of capacity. We’re replacing 73, with a near-term option for 10. We have options on another 130 train sets. We’re replacing this 40-to-50-year-old fleet with a fairly similar amount of capacity. As we work to build out what we call our Amtrak Connects strategy, growing ridership by 20 million riders per year, going from 32 million to 52 million, we can buy additional trains.
Q: You’ve got about $200 million from a previous appropriation by Congress? How will you fund the balance?
A: The rest would be contingent on direct funding to Amtrak, and states funding their share. There is broad support to replace the core 83 trains we’re talking about. So we expect we will have annual funding for our portion. The states ultimately will pay for the train sets they use. Amtrak owns the trains, so they will pay over a period of time. If there should be a moment when that money isn’t specifically available, we have the ability to finance the units.
Q: Are the Acela high-speed trains in the Northeast Corridor covered by this?
A: Separate contract, separate manufacturer. The Acela is made by Alstom. It’s being fabricated in upstate New York.
Q: In 2019, before the pandemic, didn’t ridership hit records?
A: Yes, it was 32.4 million passengers. I think our ability to recover, post-pandemic, looks very encouraging. We’re at about 62% or so of 2019 ridership, with strong bookings into the fall. A little bit ahead of what we expected. People have a desire to travel. We’re feeling that demand.
Q: Being in a confined space with others is still a concern. Do you see people getting past that once they’re vaccinated?
A: I do. If you think about our trains, in our coach seating areas, it’s two-by-two, not three-by-three. There’s substantial leg room. Our coach seats feel much more like a domestic first-class (airplane) seat. We’ve worked with researchers at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. We wanted to make sure we really understood air flow, exchanging fresh air every four to five minutes. Our passengers are still required to wear masks under CDC guidelines, as is our crew.
Q: How close are you to resuming a normal schedule?
A: Pre-COVID, we were operating around 300 to 310 trains per day. We’re operating around 210 today. Our long-distance trains are fully restored. We had congressional direction and funding to do that. Our Northeast Corridor is largely back in service. So the difference is really the state-supported network. As we head into September and October, our expectation is, we’ll be largely restored.
Q: Will these new trains reduce pollution?
A: We’re really excited about the environmental and sustainable considerations here. Riding a train per seat mile is 83% more fuel-efficient in some cases than driving and less environmentally impactful than flying. We just can’t rest there. We’re buying trains for the long term. While we’re operating in diesel mode, our general reductions in emissions (from current trains) include an 85% reduction in volatile organic compounds, a 70% reduction in carbon monoxide, an 85% reduction in nitrogen oxide and a 95% reduction in particulate matter. We’re refining those numbers. It’s something our riders certainly ask about.
Q: How do the infrastructure proposals by President Joe Biden and Congress play into your plans?
A: This would provide substantial funding for intercity passenger rail and substantial funding for Amtrak. It would allow us to make the necessary investment we need to fix infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor. We’ve got bridges and tunnels, stations to some extent from Washington to Boston. Our oldest tunnel was built in 1873. A 128-year-old tunnel across the Hudson River, 110- to 120-year-old key bridges. The other part is the expansion, introducing some 39 or 40 new routes, expanding service on another 20 routes outside the Northeast Corridor.