California HSR, Amtrak, and the Importance of Selecting the Proper Equipment.


January 29, 2013 by seradt

Significant news from these past two weeks focused on the newfound partnership between Amtrak, the United States’ perennially underfunded passenger rail operator, and the California High Speed Rail (CAHSR) Authority, the planning authority in charge of the development of the infrastructure of that state’s embattled high speed railway system. In what has been frequently regarded among transit and rail commentators as an awkward partnership due to the totally oppositional types of rail services that are expected to be offered, Amtrak and the CAHSR Authority will issue a Request for Information (RFI) to high speed train manufacturers for a combined order of 59 trainsets capable of 220 mile per hour speeds. In theory, such an RFI will permit high speed train manufacturers like Alstom, Siemens and Talgo to produce detailed specifications for a trainset that should allow for operation on both systems at a much lower cost than if trains were procured independently of the other bid. Indeed, limited trainset orders, particularly those custom in nature (as this order will certainly become for reasons elaborated on later in this posting), can be millions of dollars more expensive than a higher volume purchase.

Particularly disconcerting to engaged rail activists, however, is that Amtrak and CAHSR trainset needs could not be more different, effectively rendering such an RFI a pointless, and potentially dangerous, example of government incompetence. To fully understand why, knowledge of Amtrak and CAHSR’s plans is critical.

California’s system requires its trains to travel at speeds of 220 miles an hour to achieve legally mandated travel times of 2:40hr between Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and the now under construction Transbay Terminal in central San Francisco. These trains would be racing over brand new, clean-slate high speed rail right-of-way featuring stiff grades and minimal curvature. The infrastructure would be state-of-the-art and require equally state-of-the-art passenger vehicles to operate at optimal efficiency. The platform heights at each of the stations would conform to the specifications of a manufacturer that remains as-of-yet undetermined. What the system demands is nothing less than the world’s fastest steel-wheel on steel-rail trains, featuring power units that accelerate and decelerate rapidly to expedite travel times. A slew of manufacturers can provide such trainsets easily, and since the system is brand new and largely independent of the legacy rail network (with exempted exceptions in San Francisco and Los Angeles), it can run equipment free of FRA regulatory burdens, like minimum weight standards, absurd crash management systems and speed limitations. This allows for the purchasing of what is called off-the-shelf trainsets, significantly lowering purchase prices (if, of course, burdensome Buy America regulations do not prevent the CAHSR authority from purchasing, say, French or Spanish trains).

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor ambitions, on the other hand, are an unglamorously delusional $151 billion rail scheme that will achieve 220 mile an hour running speeds and dramatically alter travel in that region. Although it too would be a clean slate project featuring minimal curves—much like the CAHSR project—it is wholly without support, disastrously expensive and features component projects that are remarkably unnecessary (for example, a ten mile, multi-billion dollar deep bore tunnel underneath Philadelphia laughably estimated to cost $3 billion). What is more feasible—and logical, and sensible and financially sound—is a dramatic overhaul of the current 19th century built corridor that straightens or eliminates curves and eradicates slow points, particularly north of New York. Surprisingly, the line between New York and Washington is already a remarkably tangent railroad, and its finessing into very high speed rail standards could be achieved with select, critical upgrades to frustrating curves, speed-limiting tunnels and bridges and urban bypasses. Such an approach to this segment of the corridor would cost multiple billions less, yet it is still billions that Amtrak is never likely to receive. Consequently, Amtrak is decades away from even hinting of high speed rail operations on this segment, even though it does run its Acela trains at a 160 mile an hour or so top speed for a few miles through some parts. To be clear, though, 160 mile an hour top speeds for a total of a few minutes, achieving average speeds of 80 miles an hour for a trip (including station stops), is not true high speed operation. By comparison, France’s TGV achieves average speeds of 185 miles an hour, with top speeds of 200 to 220—true high speed running.

The Northeast Corridor’s improvement between New York and Boston, often called the Coast Line, however, is not so simple. Requiring massive upgrades to straighten out curves, it would be best served by undertaking the most meaningful alterations to the corridor and running a particular type of train— those that tilt with high cant deficiency. Cant deficiency is best explained as the amount of unbalanced tilt that a train is permitted to experience as it rounds a curve, with more deficiency allowing a train to round a curve at a higher speed. Think of it this way: say you were rounding a curve on a highway at 75 miles an hour. While riding the curve in the road, you feel your body starting to pull toward the outside of the curve because of lateral forces, almost giving you the impression your vehicle might tip over (and sometimes they do, but that’s another story). This feeling is easily avoided by slightly banking the outside of the curve a few precise inches—or, in engineering terms giving it cant—ultimately balancing forces to keep your car upright, you in the center of it, and the coffee safely inside your cup. In addition to that balanced cant, there is what is called cant deficiency, where a train is allowed to tilt on top of a curve and where the curve is not banked to balance out the tilt. Returning to the car example for visualization, imagine that the car is able to tilt on the banked roadway on its wheels toward the interior of the curve, allowing it to go even faster on that same curve. Because the train itself is tilting even further beyond the banked rails, for the vehicle itself was designed to do so, it dramatically alters the running characteristics of curvy railroads. Where a train might have to slow to 30 miles an hour to take an unbanked curve, a tilting train can take that same unbanked curve at 60 miles an hour with its designed cant deficiency, and even faster if the curve itself has a cant. This remarkably reduces slow points on a railroad without undertaking the hugely expensive process of seizing property and straightening out a curve. The cost of select, critical upgrades to this segment of the corridor, as well as the procurement of technologically advanced tilt-capable trains, would still be in the billions, but a multitude of billions less than Amtrak’s insane $150 billion scheme. Furthermore, while it would not achieve the latter scheme’s extraordinary trip times, such sensible improvements would nonetheless reduce trip times enough to make train travel between Boston and Washington and intermediate stops very competitive to flying and driving.

In addition, affecting both the Washington to New York and New York to Boston segments, since the Northeast Corridor is legacy rail that hosts freight trains, it is subject to the damning FRA regulations that disastrously impose themselves on passenger rail operations, as I previously wrote about in this blog. Such FRA regulations have to be addressed and removed before the corridor can operate anywhere near its full capacity or potential. Lastly, while you mercifully thought nothing further could be shared about the complexities of the antique Northeast Corridor, it is held hostage to pre-existing platform heights established many generations ago. Not just any train can work successfully here; the train has to be built for the corridor’s very particular needs.

The importance of these route characteristics rests in the fundamental truth that the two corridors require two disparate trainsets, not the single trainset that would be produced following the issuance of a joint RFI (and the process stemming from it). California’s clean-slate infrastructure does not require tilting trains, for its canted curves are of such a tremendous radius it immediately nullifies lateral forces. These incredible radiuses support 220-mile an hour (plus) operating speeds and will be ready-built into the railroad. Instead, California requires superfast off-the-shelf trains that accelerate and decelerate with expediency. Contrastingly, while Amtrak’s $151 billion Northeast Corridor plan would provide it with California-like new infrastructure, the plan is patently ridiculous and should be immediately disregarded—its just never going to happen. That leaves us with FRA-governing legacy infrastructure featuring sharp curvature on the coasts and within cities. And while it too needs trains that accelerate and decelerate quickly and have high speed abilities, it is far more important to run trains that feature a high cant deficiency to maintain speed around the corridor’s innumerable curves, and which mitigate the sure-to-be awful effects of FRA regulations the most astutely. This brings us to the crux of the problem: disturbingly, what Amtrak and the CAHSR authority have failed to acknowledge, or perhaps do not yet realize, tilting capabilities come at a trade off with very high speed, and the two systems are wholly incompatible with one another for a multitude of obvious reasons. There cannot be one trainset!

Though the Northeast Corridor requires a trainset that meets several unique qualifications for unqualified success, a trainset finely suited for immediate operations would be the high speed (though not very high speed, a difference!), high powered Pendolino by Alstom, a train capable of attaining sustained maximum speeds of 155 miles per hour, which is essentially the current top speed of the Acela. However, where this train usurps the Acela is its performance around curves, which is top-notch, and its ability to accelerate and decelerate expeditiously as a consequence of its light weight and significant power (which would, naturally, conflict with FRA regulations). Seating upwards of 600 people depending on seating configuration, it sails around curves at tops speeds with 8 inches of active tilt and has proven reliable the world over.

California, alternatively, has a gamut of choices, from German Siemens and Alstom TGV models, to Spanish Talgos and more. The state merely needs lightning fast, reliable and high-capacity trains. A variety of manufacturers can supply the rolling stock.

Worst case scenario, if there were to be one type of trainset manufactured, there would be one sure winner and loser. Winner: Amtrak, for it reduced the costs of its 32 new high speed trainsets while also procuring an advanced tilt model. It may not operate at anywhere near 220 miles an hour, but since trains could not possibly operate at such a high speed in the Northeast anytime soon anyway, who cares? At least Amtrak can now sail around curves ever faster and therefore reduce trip times between the big cities without the huge, never-to-come capital investments associated with its $151 billion white elephant.

Loser: California High Speed Rail, for although it paid less for its trainsets, the trains cannot achieve anything close to 220 mile per hour speeds, and therefore do not hit their 2:40hr San Francisco to Los Angeles trip mandates prescribed in 2008’s Proposition 1A. Yes, the trains tilt substantially, but they do not need to. They are also heavier because they comply with FRA weight regulations, severely inhibiting acceleration and deceleration speeds. What California ends up with is 20th century budget trains on state-of-the-art, 21st century infrastructure. The absurdity would be akin to racing a 1988 Geo Metro in the Daytona 500 circuit.

While the worst case scenario is indeed tragic, the potential product of such a process instigated by this RFI issuance is completely unfathomable, though whatever is developed from these fools’ errand is sure to be not very good at all. What is clear, at least to those from the outside looking in, is that this is a partnership between two amateurish entities that never should have been negotiated in the first place. It features a 21st century organization looking steadfastly into the past coupled to a insolvent, occasionally inept government bureaucracy. It also supports a horrifying misconception that any train will work wonders on any type of track or right-of-way, when revolutionary advances in railway technology have rendered that an untruth since the 1800s. No, certain trains can only operate efficiently on certain track, and it is critically important to understand each trainset model’s technological abilities and downsides, and especially how those qualities relate to the route they are intended to operate over. When we fail to consider these, we might as well be throwing money into the flames.

Ending with a short story, this partnership reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a railroader on the Cascades Corridor. Engaged in discussion on passenger operations in the Pacific Northwest, he disparaged the Cascades’ Talgo equipment for their (rare, operationally problematic) interconnectivity and decried the recent Oregon state purchase of two additional Talgo trainsets, despite that fact that the Talgos have been praise-deservingly operated for well over a decade with near 100% availability. Instead, he argued WSDOT and Oregon should purchase Superliner equipment for situations where if a single car proves to be defective, it can easily be replaced with another (whereas a defective Talgo car requires the entire set to be temporarily sidelined due to shared axles and wheels). The gentleman, with all due respect, failed to considered a plethora of details that warrant his suggestion absurd. First, the Talgo trainsets are an innately flawless match for the region, capable of desirable high speeds and high-cant deficiency to swiftly navigate the Cascade Corridor’s numerous curves (particularly north of Seattle); two, Superliner cars are heavy and hulking with limited, if non-existent, cant deficiency abilities, weighing trains down and severely impacting acceleration and deceleration, and: three, superliner cars, due to their bi-level nature, consume more time to load and unload than do single-level Talgo sets, and furthermore do not necessarily provide the higher capacity implied by their second floor (though they can be dependent upon seating arrangements specified at the time of manufacturing). What the gentleman ultimately called for was a regressive usage of sub-par equipment on a corridor clamoring for something else—something better. While his calls for more operational flexibility in times of mechanical breakdown is wholly legitimate, those needs should be met by the procurement of rescue equipment that can act as a replacement train, and, of course, vigilant maintenance.

6 thoughts on “California HSR, Amtrak, and the Importance of Selecting the Proper Equipment.

  1. Ryan says:

    First of all, I’m not sure why the “winner” has to be Amtrak and the “loser” CHSRA. Far more likely, in my opinion, is that the opposite will hold true: CHSRA is going to make out like bandits, scoring those lightning fast 220 mph trainsets at a significantly lower cost, while Amtrak gets to run those very same trains at 20% down most of the Shore Line, and the 6.5 hour trip time experienced on the Acela today becomes a 4.5 hour trip instead.

    Amtrak doesn’t even necessarily lose in that case. The NY-DC corridor today is straight enough that you don’t need a “Vision” to get to the point where 220 MPH operation isn’t just feasible, it’s probable. No, the only real losers in this arrangement are people traveling to or from Boston – while CA and the rest of the NEC get real high-speed rail, New England will be left in the dust (again.)

    In all honesty, I don’t think that’s actually a bad thing – the only part of the (dangerous, ridiculous, irresponsible) “Vision” plan that has any objective value whatsoever happens to be the stretch that bypasses the Shoreline East (between Hartford and Providence – the bypass can merge onto the Springfield Shuttle Line and follow that back to New Haven) anyway, and if the Shoreline East is bypassed, the only places where poor to nonexistent cant deficiency actually hurt us are in the vicinity of Providence and Boston (both places with unfixable track geometry where trains are going to be slowing down and stopping anyway) and, debatably, the New Haven Line itself. Personally, I’d say that trade is more than fair.


    • seradt says:

      I am curious as to why you presume that such a customized order for trains will result in CAHSR reducing costs so significantly so as to allow them to make out like bandits? Northeast Corridor FRA compliance issues will almost certainly render that null (I am not overly optimistic for a total revamping of FRA rules on the shared trackage of the NEC). Undoubtedly, a larger single order from the authority for off-the-shelf trains would provide savings too.

      It should be asked as to why CAHSR finds it sensible to couple the (possible) procurement of its new vehicles for brand new infrastructure with that of the NEC, with that corridor’s host of infrastructural baggage issues (tight curves,platform heights, catenary system age, operating practices, and so forth). Perhaps multiple frames of a standardized set can be made, one for California and the other for the NEC, but one has to wonder the unnecessary implications of such a development. Also, and this represents my own additional misgiving with the union (and I think this is shared by many), but are CAHSR’s goals of establishing its system as an efficient, world-class rail operation benefited by this entanglement with an oftentimes poorly reputed Amtrak? I would suggest not, particularly during these incipient construction phases that will ultimately demand additional funding from the state and the feds.

      With regards to the NEC and using the potential new equipment for improved operations, I am unconvinced that trains built for California speeds will be able to achieve such speeds anytime soon on the corridor. Its multi-state, politically gerrymandered, Amtrak governed rails are too controversial for me to see it being lavished in the funds it deserves for very high speed running. Consequently, would it not be more rational to secure very high-tilt trains, as opposed to maintaining this daydream of racing very high speed California trains down to Washington at 220mph? Dismiss that grand possibility for reality, get the Pendolino’s, pleasantly raise the average speeds and start from there.


      • Ryan says:

        You’re missing two very important facts here.

        The first is that the entire reason to bundle the orders to begin with is because Amtrak is trying to get a waiver from onerous FRA restrictions (restrictions which will torpedo ANY rolling stock acquisition, high-speed high-tilt or otherwise, unless and until we either have the waiver or the FRA rulebook is torn apart and rebuilt from the ground up) and jumping on board with a rolling stock acquisition that otherwise isn’t subject to those FRA rules gets them leverage for the waiver at best and costs absolutely nothing at worst – if they can’t get the waiver, then they drop out of the partnership long before the FRA has an opportunity to compromise CAHSR.

        The second is that you know, and I know, and most of the people on the outside looking in know that Amtrak isn’t getting the Vision, the likely scenario is that all they get is the new ROW to build a bypass around the one stretch of track (between Westerly, RI and New Haven, CT) that’s permanently crippling the NEC due to grade crossings we can’t separate and movable bridges that we can’t close permanently, and that we’re going to have to find some way to work with the rest of the corridor and all of its attendant issues. But I don’t think Amtrak knows that, or if it does, it’d much prefer to keep shooting for the moon and hoping to somehow get its impossible dream – or, if you favor the cynical outlook, hold the entire NEC hostage and choose “no improvements” if it can’t get a brand-new corridor.

        New York to Washington, other than a few particularly ugly pinch points, is capable of 220 MPH with limited investment, no greenfield corridor necessary. New York to Boston isn’t, but if it comes down to “high-tilt and relatively slower speeds on most of the line” or “very high speeds on half of the line and very slow speeds on the other half,” I somehow doubt that Amtrak is going to settle for less on the half of the corridor that already sees about twice as much as service (and that gap is widening) so that speeds can be ‘pleasantly raised’ on the stretch to Boston. And as someone who regularly commutes to Boston by way of Amtrak, I honestly think that I’d be better off with 220 MPH operation between New York and Washington than I would be with 186 MPH between Washington, New York and Boston.


      • seradt says:

        The problem with your first paragraph, which in theory I am entirely in agreement with, is that the FRA clearly has no intention of resolving its longstanding nuisance requirements for passenger train vehicles or their operation. The FRA now exists to perpetuate its existence, not to enable the creation of efficient rail systems.

        Furthermore, Amtrak as a political entity, I am convinced, will never be appropriated the kind of funding it needs to redevelop any of its corridors, most notably the NEC. Amtrak is a political poison pill, and its sole purpose was always to stave off the collapse of the American passenger railway network, not to expand or reorient it towards the future like the TGV or Skinkansen systems.

        I think there is a paradigm shift taking place within the United States regarding passenger rail usage and investment, and I think particular corridors will be successful foci of state and/or regional investment. However, I think these corridors will ultimately be divorced from the Amtrak name and way of doing things.


      • Ryan says:

        I think you’re undermining your own argument with that last paragraph, though.

        Right now, Amtrak is passenger rail in America. Love it or hate it, it’s the thing that gets most immediately equated to US rail services and the circumstances of its creation also afford it a legally privileged position that we most likely would never be able to replicate the creation of again. I agree that there’s a paradigm shift happening, and I even agree that future growth and investment is going to skew nearly 100% towards corridor investment, but I disagree that Amtrak is going to be divorced from this process, and frankly – if Amtrak is a political poison pill, then passenger rail investment itself is a political poison pill.

        CAHSR is a glaring exception to the general rule which has been, so far, that the lion’s share of investments are going to improving existing Amtrak corridors (especially in the midwest), or creating new Amtrak corridors, and other High-Speed Rail Authorities are more than happy to work with Amtrak and at least appear to want the Amtrak brand attached to their future service. There’s huge inherent value in having a national network as well, and having a dozen or so different HSR operators, whose corridors may or may not share terminals, is no substitute at all for a national brand.

        The real poison pill, in my estimation, is trying to throw Amtrak out the window and start over. California is the exception here, not the guiding metric for what passenger rail into the 2050s and beyond is going to look like. Changing the current way of doing business, and revolutionizing the FRA, are both possible – especially as the pressure mounts and political will rallies behind better transit. Discarding those organizations would be similarly easy, but replacing them would be much harder – I’d even wager to say it would be impossible, and we would all be worse off for it if it happened.


  2. bobtrainnut says:

    Great blog! I’m still studying all the links from your Jan 29th post!


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