Amtrak is Blocking MBTA Electrification

Ten years ago, Amtrak began putting out its outrageously expensive proposals for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor. Already then, when it asked for $10 billion to barely speed up trains, there was a glaring problem with coordination: Amtrak wanted hundreds of millions of dollars to three-track the Providence Line so that its trains could overtake the MBTA’s commuter trains between Providence and Boston, even though the same benefit could be obtained for cheaper by building strategic overtakes and electrifying the MBTA so that its trains would run faster. Unfortunately, Amtrak has not only displayed no interest in coordinating better service with the MBTA this way, but has just actively blocked the MBTA.

The issue at hand is MBTA electrification: the MBTA runs an exclusively diesel fleet. These trains are slow, polluting, and unreliable. Lately they have had breakdowns every few thousand kilometers, whereas electric trains routinely last multiple hundreds of thousands of kilometers between breakdowns. The current scheduled trip time between Boston and Providence is about 1:10 on the MBTA with a total of nine stops, whereas Amtrak’s southbound trains do the same trip in 35 minutes with three stops, leading to a large schedule difference between the trains, requiring overtaking. Fortunately, modern electric multiple units, or EMUs, could make the same stops as the MBTA in about 45 minutes, close enough to Amtrak that Amtrak could speed up its trains without conflict.

The MBTA would benefit from electrification without any reference to Amtrak. Connecting Boston and Providence in 45 minutes rather than 70 has large benefits for suburban and regional travelers, and the improved reliability means trains can follow the schedule with fewer unexpected surprises. The line is already wired thanks to Amtrak’s investment in the 1990s, and all that is required is wiring a few siding and yard tracks that Amtrak did not electrify as it does not itself use them. With the diesel locomotives falling apart, the MBTA has begun to seriously consider electrifying.

Unfortunately, the MBTA has made some questionable decisions, chief of which is its attempt to procure electric locomotives rather than self-propelled EMUs. The MBTA’s reasoning is that EMUs require high platforms, which cost about $10 million per station, which is a small but nonzero amount of money on the Providence Line. As a result, it neglected any solution involving buying new EMUs or even leasing them from other railroads for a pilot project. It’s only looking at electric locomotives, whose travel time benefits are about half as large as those of EMUs.

And yet, Amtrak is blocking even the half-measures. The MBTA sought to lease electric locomotives from Amtrak, which uses them on its own trains; Amtrak quoted an unreasonably high monthly price designed to get the MBTA to lose interest. As of last week, the MBTA put the plan to lease electric locomotives for its electrification pilot on hold. No plans for purchase of rolling stock are currently active, as the MBTA is worried about lead time (read: having to actually write down and execute a contract) and does not know how to buy lightly-modified European products on the open market.

As far as Amtrak is concerned, speeding up the MBTA is not really relevant. Yes, such a speedup would improve Amtrak’s own scheduling, removing a few minutes from the Northeast Corridor’s travel time that would otherwise cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But Amtrak has time and time again displayed little interest in running fast trains. All it wants is money, and if it can ask for money without having to show anything for it, then all the better. Coordinating schedules with other railroads is hard, and only improves the experience of the passengers and not Amtrak’s managers.

The MBTA’s decisionmaking is understandable, in contrast, but still questionable. It was worth asking; the MBTA is no worse for having received an unreasonable offer. However, it is imperative that the MBTA understand that it must be more proactive and less hesitant. It must electrify, and commit a real budget to it rather than a pilot. This means immediately raising the platforms on the stations of the Providence Line that do not yet have level boarding and buying (not leasing) modern EMUs, capable of running fast schedules.

Even with some infill, there are only seven low-platform stations on the mainline and two on the branch to Stoughton, none in a constrained location where construction is difficult. This is at most a $100 million project, excluding the trains themselves. The MBTA could operate the Providence Line with seven to eight trainsets providing service every 15 minutes and the Stoughton Line with another four providing the same. Procuring trains for such service would cost another $250 million or so, but the MBTA needs to buy new rolling stock anyway as its diesel locomotives are past the end of their useful lives, and buying EMUs would pay for itself through higher ridership and lower operating expenses coming from much faster trips.

The MBTA is fortunately salvageable. It has a serious problem in that the state leadership is indecisive and noncommittal and prefers a solution that can be aborted cheaply to one that provides the best long-term financial and social return on investment. However, it is seriously looking in the right direction, consisting of better equipment providing higher-quality service to all passengers.

Amtrak is unfortunately not salvageable. An intercity railroad whose reaction to a commuter railroad’s attempt to improve service for both systems is to overcharge it on rolling stock proves that it is ignorant of, indifferent to, and incurious about modern rail operations. A chain of managers from the person who made the decision to offer the MBTA bad lease terms upward must be removed from their positions if there is any hope for improved intercity rail in the Northeastern United States.

80 comments

  1. mdfinfer

    “The MBTA’s reasoning is that EMUs require high platforms, which cost about $10 million per station, which is a small but nonzero amount of money on the Providence Line.”

    NJ Transit has a fleet of EMU’s that stop at low level platforms every day. They will be retired in a few years. Perhaps the MBTA could save some money by reconditioning them and using them in electrified territory.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, I guess those EMUs also run on 25 kV 60 Hz already because that’s how the Morris and Essex Lines and part of the NJ Coast Line are electrified…

      • mdfinfer

        Actually no. The Arrows cannot make the voltage transition on the fly. They are restricted west of the phase break at Lloyd. Some are set up for 60 hz, 25 kv, and some are set up for 11.5 kV 15 hz.

          • anonymouse

            Furthermore any given MU can be switched from the one to the other by taking it in into the shop and flipping a switch in the main transformer. I had the idea of leasing Arrows back in 2008, and they’re actually pretty good in terms of performance, but the interiors are old and worn and I don’t know how good their reliability it. They are restricted to 80 mph by NJT, but I’m sure they were designed to go faster originally.

    • adirondacker12800

      They were built in 1978 or 1979. the only reason Massachusetts would want to buy them is to build artificial reefs.

    • InigoMontoya

      The current state of affairs sounds far, far worse than what some European countries used to achieve with coaching stock drawn by diesel locomotives between low-platform stops. So, what gives?

  2. Martin Friedrichs

    This seems staggeringly malintentioned. Why is there so little true leadership on trains and transit in the US?
    CT and MA spent a lot of money on the Springfield-New Haven corridor. But they’re running diesel locomotives and ancient equipment.

    • Mike

      There are many factors which reinforce each other, but I guess the most common threat between them is a dislike of cities. One author I read said Europeans love their cities because historically walled cities were their defense against lawless bandits, while Americans tend to see cities as places of sin and squalor and being cooped up. 19th-century industrial cities were polluted and unhealthy so people longed to live in the country, and they had more opportunity to do so, and railroads followed them. But the railroads were run like monopolies with price-gouging and that led to strong resentment. Through the first half of the 20th century most Americans still lived in small towns or rural areas so their transit options weren’t as comprehensive as in the cities. The introduction of cars allowed them to go where they want, when they want, and to stick it to the railroad barons. At the same time the automobile lobby was powerful politically and got the government to prioritize roads and highways and air travel and deprioritize trains. In the late 1970s the enthusiasm for civic infrastructure began to reverse and people became more interested in tax cuts and deunionization than in collective infrastructure, and trains were seen as collective (big government socialist) and old-fashioned, and cars as individualistic and contemporary, which fit the culture. So the public soured on infrastructure spending right when a massive individualistic car/plane/suburban infrastructure had been built and the collective train infrastructure had been so neglected it was half gone and falling apart. Now when people can bestir themselves to spend money, it’s mostly on highways and airports, and support for government agencies alternates between supportive and hostile, and in that environment they start demanding that agencies like Amtrak be self-supported or at least almost self-supported. I wish there were visionaries in power who would really prioritize robust transit and a comprehensive rail network and look beyond the US to see what works elsewhere but there just isn’t a critical mass of those people yet.

      • Nathanael

        The bottom line is a hostility to cities. Thankfully that hostility has isolated itself into the dying Republican Party. Those under the age of roughly 35 today *do* like cities. So now all we have to do is wait for the demographics to catch up — for the baby boomers & older to die. Urbanization continues as it has for 5000 years.

  3. Justin

    Can we have more citations on the backhanded tactics of Amtrak? I appreciate sources where provided but I would love to be able to write to my state reps and point out clear examples of where they can force an issue.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes: MARC’s deelectrification of its Baltimore-Washington service has a similar origin. MARC was using old electric locomotives maintained together with Amtrak’s; as these locomotives went through end of life, Amtrak overcharged MARC for getting new electric locos, and together with Amtrak’s overcharging on electricity, MARC decided to go diesel.

      • adirondacker12800

        Amtrak’s overcharging on electricity,

        The MTA, NJTransit and SEPTA run their own systems. I’m sure they would be more than happy to share the cost figures with MARC or the MBTA. And don’t get “overcharged” by Amtrak because they know, from operating their own electrification, how much it costs.

        • mdfinfer

          NJ Transit and SEPTA both operate trains on the Northeast Corridor and are being raked over the coals by Amtrak for traction power. Both agencies have no other choice. Both operate trains where diesels cannot go in regular service.

  4. No.6

    The problem here left uncovered is in Amtrak’s governing policy. The statement that “as far as Amtrak is concerned, speeding up the MBTA is not really relevant” is correct, and it is due to this policy. Its present interest is to maximize the amount of money the MBTA pays it for access, while minimizing any encumbrance MBTA trains represent. This kind of cannibalistic behavior is partly how Amtrak ends up boasting of a sensational 95% operational recovery rate – its primary narrow concern as dictated by its board and policy.

    The mistake made here is presenting the idea that the dysfunction can be addressed by firing Amtrak’s mid level management without dealing with the policy and board that governs the organization. It’s the same notion that erected the “Save Amtrak – Fire [President] Anderson” billboard in Philadelphia that misses the same point.

    There is in fact a way to salvage the structure: it is found in the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization, and subsequent reauthorizations, where such policies can be addressed. It is also found in the composition of Amtrak’s POTUS appointed board, which is a separate threat, far greater than any one public employee of Amtrak including its current President & CEO.

    • Martin

      But isn’t this the result of the austerity funding level for Amtrak that forces them to prioritize their passengers and funding over other passengers?

      • Alon Levy

        No, not really, Amtrak gains from speeding up the MBTA, it just doesn’t care. The pattern is that austerity-wracked Amtrak in the Bush era pretended it was profitable and deferred maintenance, and then in the Obama era with the stimulus suddenly cried poverty and demanded $10 billion for the state of good repair black hole.

    • Nathanael

      The problem is definitely embedded into Amtrak’s middle management as well as its (currently totally idiotic) top management. The management culture problems at Amtrak are continuous and date all the way back to before the Penn Central merger; they’ve been doctoring the books, faking the numbers, and acting in a customer-hostile fashion from before day one. They *inherited* dishonest bookkeeping! It’s hard to know how to clean out the rot.

    • Nathanael

      Amtrak’s management has core cultural problems which date back to Penn Central, before Amtrak. They’ve been doctoring the books, falsifying the numbers, and being hostile to customers since before they were *formed*.

      The current idiot at the top of Amtrak doesn’t realize he’s being fed false numbers, even though he was handed an audit on a silver platter.

      I’m not sure how to fix the rot.

  5. IAN! Mitchell

    If EMUs can make the providence-Boston (i’m assuming that’s South Station, how far is Back Bay?) trip in 45 minutes, what would the time estimate for the trip from PVD Airport station to Boston*?

    *Yes, this is in consideration of possibilities given an eventual closure of Logan Airport.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t know, I’ve literally never written that timetable south of Providence. (And yes, it’s South Station; Back Bay is around 3 minutes from South Station at modern first-world approach speeds, i.e. not 10 mph.)

    • michael

      Besides catastrophic sea-level rise, it’s hard to imagine a circumstance where Logan would be voluntarily moved. There is at least $20B of investment into Logan’s terminals & all its attenuating ramps, tunnels, parking decks, etc. The replacement cost of a similar sized airport plus the infrastructure to get people to it would certainly be at least $20B in MA.

      The most recent major airport relocation was Denver & I believe it was $6.9B, 20 years ago excluding the highways & transit connections. And that airport has been expanded multiple times since. Plus, 20 year ago, Denver was a much smaller metro area with access to expansive dry, great plains land. Massachusetts is a soggy, hilly state chock full of rivers, creeks, & NIMBYs. There is really only one sensible place in Metro Boston to relocate the airport, (hanscom airforce base) but it is in the epicenter of NIMBYism and Massachusetts towns have huge amounts of autonomy under the state constitution.

      Economically, the entire grounds of Logan is about 2.6 square miles or 1,664 acres. Back of the envelop, a developer would have to be offering around $12M/acre to ever make it worth it for taxpayers to consider moving that airport, which is vastly above East Boston prices. Given the airport is built former sandbars in Boston Harbor, I question whether it would ever be structurally possible to build the substantial buildings necessary on that marginal land to justify acquisition prices anywhere in that ballpark.

  6. Martin

    Caltrain spent $551m for 96 cars which works out to <$6 million per EMU car. It might be wise for MBTA to order the same model since that one already comes with doors at 2 levels making for easier transition to high platforms. These are rated at 110mph, so they won't reach Amtrak speeds, but Stadler does make a variation that runs at 125mph for other countries. Not unimaginable to ask for the 125mph Caltrain variant.

    Best part, these are already in production in Utah, so little modifications would be needed.

      • Martin

        I was referring to double-deck EMUs like Caltrain has with double-doors and running at 110mph, and by off-the-shelf, I mean cars that are ordered and or running in US (so already approved with US regulations, meet Buy America requirements). We can wish things were cheaper, but focusing on price distracts us from moving forward.

        Ideally, now the passenger train standards have been modified to allowed European trains, I think it’s more productive to talk in terms an existing deployment. Otherwise, we’ll be bogged down over details that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

          • Martin

            But unless you can get it certified to run in USA, you’re buying giant paperweights. I know that other countries can build for less or are allowed to import it from either cheaper countries. However, you could fight regulations for years (and watch your costs go up due to delays and inflation) to maybe get permits to allow you to purchase $20 million 8-car EMU. Or you could place an order today for a $43 million 8-car Caltrain EMU. In addition to getting service up sooner, you’re also getting vehicles that are in service on this continent which increases availability of parts, and confidence that you can order more in the future.

            I wish politics weren’t so evil in America, but we can be thankful that money is easier to get. American market isn’t large enough for 4-5 suppliers of double-deck EMUs, so there might be some wisdom in nurturing existing designs.

            It’s worth pointing out that Caltrain fought for nearly 10 years to help push the regulation that got them European style EMUs, so rather than wait another decade, let’s just appreciate what’s been accomplished.

          • Alon Levy

            Then certify it using the new regs; these trains are supposed to be legal in the US with very light modifications. The FRA already published the new regs last year, this isn’t some new waiver process.

          • adirondacker12800

            Which light modifications? Caltrain is apparently paying 6 million per car. Denver isn’t so special and paid 4.5. Let NJTransit or the MTA eat the development costs then order whatever they come up with, cheap. Like SEPTA is apparently doing with the NJTransit multilevel MU order.

          • Martin

            In terms of height:
            * 15 ft 11 inch – Bombardier Bi-level
            * 15 ft .75 inch – Stadler Kiss EMU
            * 14 ft 6 inch – NJ Transit Multi-level.
            While raising gauge to accommodate 15ft 11 inch stock might be hard, would there be value to scrounge up an extra 6 inches for ability to purchase “off the shelf” European stock such as the KISS EMU?

          • adirondacker12800

            New tunnels under the Hudson River would take a long time to build and be very expensive.

  7. Stephen Karlson

    Hasn’t anyone heard of the platform trap? Just watch the South Shore Line cars in Chicago load at platform height along the Metra Electric and then load or unload at street level in the middle of Michigan City, Indiana. What is an EMU if not a larger interurban car?

    • Alon Levy

      These are really bad, actually:

      1. You can only put them at the ends of the car. To improve circulation, two-door EMUs put the doors at the quarter points, not at the ends of the car.
      2. They add weight to the car.

      The American cars with traps also require conductors to operate them, but I have seen videos of automatically-operated traps in South Korea.

      • J.C. Penn

        Maybe I’m missing or misunderstanding something, but are you talking about fold-up stairs? Because why would you need an operator for that or why do you think those can only be installed at the ends of cars?

        The Stadtbahn Stuttgart light rail system has now completed its switch to raised platforms on all stations to allow level boarding, but until a few years ago, some lines served both raised platform stops as well as street-level stops on the street-running sections.

        The solution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtugyMBb904

        • Alon Levy

          American traps aren’t fold-up stairs. Here is an example with the trap closed. It’s in high-platform mode, but if the trap is opened it reveals stairs for low platforms. This can only be at the end of the car because the stairs have to be within the train’s loading gauge – they’re not extending out of the train.

  8. The Economist

    First things first: Are there any public sources detailing the issues raised by Amtrak that made the MBTA shelve its plans?

    Second, how serious is the MBTA about leasing electric locomotives if they have not tried to lease a few from the other electric operators: NJT and SEPTA? It is not that NJT has excess electrics to spare, but one or two units might be doable at the right price. SEPTA should be even easier given that their toasters have all necessary PTC equipment installed and last thing I heard was that they were rotting in a train yard in NJ. These are not shiny Siemens Sprinters, but should have been sufficient for a trial.

    Third, I always thought that the biggest problem with MBTA electrifying the Providence line was that all substations needed extra transformers and related equipment. This is definitely expensive stuff with lead order time of years and definitely a difficult sell for any politician as standing next to a transformer is not a good photo-op.

    As for EMUs, if the MBTA ever gets there they will do best to hitch a ride on someone else’s order. NJT seems the best candidate if their double level EMUs actually work (the jury on whether Bombardier can make that happen is still out). The California Stadlers could work, but in my view are not the best start for an agency that is just tip-toing into electrics. Note that the new NJT EMUs will still serve high and low level platforms, so that is $100 million that the MBTA does not have to spend on high level platforms yet.

    • adirondacker12800

      First things first: Are there any public sources detailing the issues raised by Amtrak that made the MBTA shelve its plans?

      That wouldn’t be any fun. Much more fun to whine that Amtrak is evil, without any source. ….. NJTransit, if they wanted to, could run diesel up until the portal for the Hudson River tunnels. They don’t. Metro North could have abandoned the high voltage electrification on the New Haven Line, they didn’t. NJTransit didn’t have to convert the Morris and Essex lines to 25Kv/60Hz either but they did. Someone somewhere has the numbers that show electrification makes sense. But it’s more fun to whine that Amtrak is evil.

    • Alon Levy

      1. No, I’ve heard this privately from area activists who are in constant touch with MBTA and adjacent officials. What I was told is that Amtrak did not reject the lease plan but merely demanded an excessive price for a monthly lease.

      2. The Toasters are at end of life. The ALP-46s are not; the MBTA has not tried to lease them from what I’ve heard and I’ll follow up asking why, but also they’re even worse for the Providence Line than the Sprinters.

      3. The substations were all built with provisions for expansion should the MBTA electrify its own service. There is some extra fixed infrastructure that needs to be built, like wiring some sidings and Pawtucket Yards, but the biggest upfront cost remains rolling stock, and even that’s pretty cheap.

      4. Level boarding isn’t some random cost to be avoided, it’s an important component of reliable high-speed regional rail.

      • The Economist

        It is funny how we are actually much closer in our views that it appears. I might tend to be a bit more pragmatic when it comes to what is politically achievable in the US.

        2. Yes, the toasters are at the end of their life, but they could run in a 6-12 month trial. There is no way they will be any good for more than a trial, but that is OK. Two trainsets that cut the travel time by 20+ minutes per trip for a 6-12 month trial is good way to test the concept and observe the extra demand induced by the faster service (two train sets will not make all runs electric, but as a trial it is OK to only speed up the peak demand trains). Another (and possibly better) place to borrow electric engines is AMT. My understanding is that their ALP45s are not going to ever see a wire up in Montreal, so they might be easier to borrow for a short term lease. Other than that though, I cannot think of anyone else who would have easily available electric engines available on this continent. The MBTA, MassDOT and the state of Massachusetts in general do not appear ready to take the plunge to electric the way California is doing with Caltrain, so anyone hoping that they will place their bets on some European equipment that has never ran on this side of the Atlantic before will be mightily disappointed.

        3. Yes, the substations were provisioned with the extra space, but the transformers and the switches need to be in place if all trains on the line are to be replaced by electrics. It does not matter whether they choose to run Sprinters, toasters or some swanky EMUs. They all need the extra power juice. With locomotives using the existing train cars the required capital investment is much less than with EMUs. Yes, service will be slower than with EMUs, but the difference in cost matters a lot to the US politicians, so incremental improvement to electric locomotives with follow up replacement in 30 years with EMUs is much better than just giving the politicians excuses to do nothing. Also note that even NJT is not talking about going EMU only on their electrified lines. It might happen one day, but it is not in the card at this time. The same is true for SEPTA.

        4. No disagreement here. The goal should be high level platforms everywhere, but I will still take faster electrical service with low level platforms over the current diesels.

        • adirondacker12800

          NJTransit has all that shiny new stuff they bought in anticipation of ARC opening this year. They don’t need to replace their fleet all at once.

    • Max Wyss

      Quite frankly, looking at the issues Bombardier is facing worldwide at the moment, it may not really be the supplier of choice.

      About the KISS: This is not a new development; currently there are about 180 trains in operation and another 80 or so are under construction or ordered.

  9. Patrick

    Unfortunately, the MBTA has made some questionable decisions, chief of which is its attempt to procure electric locomotives rather than self-propelled EMUs.

    I can be sympathetic to the MBTA’s reasoning, here…electric locomotives require less of an upfront capital investment (since they could use the same cars they are running now), and it offers more flexibility with switching cars on or off other lines. Whether MBTA or MARC, railroads prefer some element of fleet commonality…having a small, orphan fleet of EMU’s can quickly become a maintenance headache, especially towards the end of their lives.

    It’s very much a transitional issue…if MBTA is going to electrify most of their lines within 20 years, then going straight to EMU’s is worthwhile, otherwise they probably wouldn’t ever reach the point where maintaining separate equipment would be worthwhile (like MARC). A chicken and egg scenario in some ways…

    • Alon Levy

      First, modern rolling stock purchase contracts include maintenance. Second, a lot of the insistence on fleet flexibility comes from having trains that break down so often that trains on one line are needed to spot for trains on another. And third, the cost of NJT’s recent locos is, what, 3 times that of an M8?

      • Patrick

        Whether maintenance is bundled in the cost of the rolling stock or done separately by the operator on their own, economies of scale are what they are…it will cost more to maintain a smaller, orphan fleet either way. And fleet flexibility is more than just covering for broken down trains…there are other reasons (shifts in demand due to seasonal or special events, extraordinary events, etc.).

        Locomotives may cost 3x as much as a single M-8, but the unpowered cars they pull are only ~0.55x the cost of M-8’s (0x if they use the cars they already have), so the breakeven point on capital costs is 4-5 car long trains.

        • Alon Levy

          But then you need more locomotive-hauled sets than EMUs because EMUs are faster, both through faster acceleration and through better circulation permitting shorter dwell times than on the MBTA’s current fleet.

          • wiesmann

            You can get good acceleration with conventional locomotives: just use two of them. Some Zürich S-Bahn train-sets are composed of double decker carriages and one Re 420 (LION version) at each end of the train.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, okay, but then you have like a third of the mass of the train not carrying passengers; evidently Zurich is (slowly) transitioning to EMUs.

          • Max Wyss

            Agreed with the Lion trains, with 8 driven axles for 8 bi-levels. But they may have a comparable acceleration to the DPZ (which are also locomotive plus 3 cars).

            Legendary are the trials by DB in München, in 1989, where they used two BR 120 units to haul 4 Belgian bi-levels through the city tunnel, and it failed miserably. Not only because of the limited acceleration (despite the 5600 kW power rating), but also because of the limited number of doors.

            Therefore, for a high-power S-Bahn system, you will need distributed power; in extremis all axles powered.

          • Alon Levy

            Speaking of: in the US, EMUs have all axles powered, whereas here this seems extremely uncommon – the FLIRTs and KISSes only power one third to 40% of the axles, supporting maybe half the train’s mass. Motors here are also pretty big, like two 1.3 MW units, whereas in the US and Japan each axle is motorized separately, so you have lots of 100 and 200 and 300 kW motors.

          • Max Wyss

            With their current products (FLIRT and KISS), Stadler uses 500 kW motors (continuous rating) per driven axle.
            Maximum speed is set via gear ratio and software.

          • Alon Levy

            Oh, interesting. I remember reading that Alstom used power cars on the TGV because small Japanese-style motors were unfamiliar technology in Europe at the time, and even now the European high-speed EMUs motorize half the bogies and have an entire motor for the car at ~2 MW. Are the 500 kW motors unique to Stadler, or do other high-performance regional trains here use them too?

    • Alon Levy

      It applies to federally-funded contracts and has an exemption if an American-made good costs more than 25% more than an import. The reason state governments don’t pursue these exemptions is political: they are enamored with photo-ops of factories with hardhat jobs for American men without college degrees, never mind that the cost premium per job is a million dollars and the jobs pay $20 an hour.

      • adirondacker12800

        The main problem with used trains would be the leap from the platform to the train or vice versa.

    • Alon Levy

      This is not “a good rebuttal.” It’s taking the line about the Providence Line’s substations and turning it into something bigger than it actually is. There is already room in the substations for this, because Amtrak sized the substations in the 1990s for eventual expansion. So what remains is cheap electrical capacity upgrades.

      Yeah, I get it, F-Line feels threatened. The part where he asserted incorrect things about platform height got to him. Whatever, he can keep being wrong.

      • adirondacker12800

        How cheap and how is it going to be paid for? With cites to reliable sources, please.

        • Alon Levy

          You know every electrification project in the world includes substations, right? And these are often for lines with multiple tph? It’s not broken out, because the size of the substations is a secondary factor.

          • adirondacker12800

            I’m not the one trying to make living at this. Surely you have references, ones pertinent to the MBTA, with links, at your fingertips. What are they?

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t, because on mainlines with the expected traffic level of the Providence Line it’s literally a rounding error. Good rule of thumb: if it’s not a rounding error, it implies that HSR electrification must be really expensive, since it is designed around 12 tph in each direction each with around 20 MW rather than 8 tph at 6 MW.

            Now, to be fair, usually it costs more to retrofit than to do something de novo. That’s why it’s so important that we’re discussing a) substations, b) built at-grade, c) with enough room for expansion. This isn’t a subway, where finding room for new electrical capacity on the L (or on the Northern line) is nontrivial. This is a place where it’s perfectly feasible to do work without disturbing existing service, so costs shouldn’t be higher than the share of substations in doing that de novo.

          • Jacob Manaker

            SEPTA has a page that handily lists all its recent substation replacement projects and their costs. The cited costs are in the $7-12m range; the one exception is replacing Wayne Junction’s frequency converters, which costs $60m.

            You’re welcome.

          • adirondacker12800

            Someone in Massachusetts has a link or can file the forms to get the documents. Until then it’s a bunch of foamers whining that Amtrak is evil and the MBTA is stupid.

  10. Max Wyss

    A bit late in the discussion, but one conclusion is that there should be an infrastructure manager for the NEC, and operators. Right now, Amtrak plays both roles, and that has been shown many times to be not a good thing when other operators must be involved.

    What would be needed is (as said) an infrastructure manager, plus a path manager where the operators can buy paths in a non-discriminatory manner. So, Amtrak, MBTA, NJTransit etc. etc. would have to secure their paths. In the case of the NEC, this would automatically push towards electric operation, because a slow diesel hauled train would need two (or more) paths.

  11. sean

    lol this articale is a joke, there locomotives are not “falling apart”. they are spending millions on rebuilding part of the existing fleet right now. Trains yes pollut the air but far less then cars and air travel. if a graph was done on the pollution in this state rail would probably make up 1 or 2 percent at most. if you ask most people the reason why the fleet is in such disrepair is because of the operators, Keolis. also the state does not give proper attention to rail travel as does the government does not give proper attention to amtrak. it really comes back to the people in the state because MBTA has put forth many proposals including extending services on many lines and the south coast rail project that has been in limbo for years now and the state nore the voter wants to put any money towards it. the MBTA does its best with what it has.

    • Alon Levy

      The MBTA has high operating costs across the board. And it’s very nice that trains are less polluting than planes, but Dorchester isn’t getting asthma from planes.

  12. Dan Weber

    Not all EMUs require high level platforms, it depends which model you get. Many SEPTA commuter train stations in Philadelphia don’t have high level platforms, yet they operate a fleet of almost entirely EMUs.

    • Alon Levy

      Mixed-floor height EMUs exist, but their internal circulation isn’t great thanks to the car end doors, so the required dwell time is longer.

  13. Michael Whelan

    Alon, do you think it would help if Amtrak were truly nationalized? Right now it exists in this weird vacuum where it is ultimately a public entity but is not subject to any immediate political accountability for mis-management. Do you think it would be better if the president of Amtrak reported directly to the Secretary of Transportation, and ultimately the president? In the short term, this would obviously put Amtrak under Trump’s control more directly, but in the long term it would allow a future Democratic president to grab the bull by the horns, treat Amtrak like the public service that it truly is, and institute reforms directly. This would dovetail with any effort to build national HSR.

    • Alon Levy

      In practice that’s what already happens. In the 2000s, privatizing Amtrak was a political priority, so the Bush administration stacked the board with people who would defer maintenance to make Amtrak look more profitable and fired David Gunn for refusing to do so. A Biden administration that were interested in improving intercity passenger rail could equally stack the board with reformers and hire someone with experience running good railroad operations as CEO.

      • adirondacker12800

        No it wasn’t. The political priority was to run it into the ground while the designated bipartisan, John Mica, made vague bleeting noises about privatization. He didn’t actually do anything. So the rest of them could lounge around and assure each other that trains are a Communist plot to sap the precious bodily fluids of Real Americans(tm). When there isn’t a designated bipartisan, someone, usually Susan Collins, goes on and on and on about how awful something is, before they vote for it. When they manage to actually propose something.

        • Alon Levy

          In the mid-2000s? Yes, it was the priority. McCain was yelling at Gunn about subsidies, and Gunn insisted that no, he would not reduce costs (read: defer maintenance) to make Amtrak profitable in the short term. John Mica only became the designated bipartisan after the 2010 election, and by then, it was a different world.

          • adirondacker12800

            It didn’t suddenly appear as an issue when you began paying attention.

            I’m not going to watch four hours and twenty minutes of Congressional hearing. On why Gunn was fired among other things. From 2005 when Rep. Mica says in his opening statement, at nine minutes and 24 seconds “I have been involved in this process for 13 years……. ” where he goes on to singing the praises of privatizing the Northeast Corridor. In 2005.

            https://www.c-span.org/video/?189931-1/amtrak-governance

          • adirondacker12800

            If they don’t have designated bipartisans they can’t claim they are being bipartisan. Or they get interviewed and say it’s awful but vote for it anyway. Or say they are going to vote for it and change their mind at the last minute. They ran around for years singing the praise of some cockamamie plan cooked up by the think tanks that Massachusetts decided to experiment with, Romneycare. When it got enacted nationally it became death panels and Communism. Which they were going to repeal lickety split. Deficits are awful. Until they aren’t….. CSPAN and the archives of the news networks are a wonderful thing….The only thing they got done was lower taxes on rich people and installing judges.

          • Alon Levy

            In 2005 they weren’t claiming they were being bipartisan. The muh bipartisnaship line started after they started losing elections (“why did Obama not reach out to us?”).

          • adirondacker12800

            Both sides crow about how bipartisan they are since forever. And they have had the designated bipartisan since the Rockefeller/CountryClub/Wall Street faction of the party began to wander off to spend more time with the family back in the 90s. Around the same time the last of Dixiecrats gave up on being nominally Democratic and changed party.

  14. Paul Dyson

    Alon, the AEM 7AC locomotives were completely rebuilt in 2000 and at not at life end. We have recently informed MBTA that we have 12 of these with an option for 3 more which we can make available for this service. We are awaiting a response. I agree about emus, but these can be deployed almost immediately. It’s appalling that any agency is rebuilding Tier Zero diesels. We can fill them with batteries and put one on each electric hauled train and use on the Stoughton line.

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