Amtrak’s Fat, Expensive and Slow New Northeast Corridor Locomotives Arrive for Testing

The East Coast's loss is Sacramento's gain. The ACS-64 is being built just outside of the city, in Florin, California.

The East Coast’s loss is Sacramento’s gain. The ACS-64 is being built just outside of the city, in Florin, California.

Northeast Corridor, meet your new locomotives: Amtrak’s Cities Sprinter, a new electric locomotive built by Siemens and commissioned in 2010 for half a billion dollars, has arrived on the East Coast for testing. By the end of the year, you’ll be able to find it at Penn Station, hauling Amtrak coaches on the Northeast Regional between Boston and Washington, D.C., as well as along the Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania.

Like all of Amtrak’s trains, the Amtrak Cities Sprinter will be fatter, slower, more expensive and more difficult to maintain than the models that Siemens sells to other countries.

The ACS-64, as the new model is known, is based on Siemens’ EuroSprinter, but has been modified to meet American regulators’ globally-unique crash safety standards. Many railroads across the world order changes to their trains, but the special requirements of the Federal Railroad Administration go far beyond what others ask.

Other countries use high-quality signaling to prevent collisions from happening in the first place, and crumple zones to protect light trains in case it does happen. The FRA, on the other hand, insists that American trains be bulked up to survive crashes with minimal deformation, with all of the inefficiencies that heavier trains that must be specially ordered entail.

The ACS-64 will weigh in at 98 metric tons, while other versions of the EuroSpriner, from Korea to Belgium, clock in at 80 to 88 metric tons. The Belgians paid around $4.6 million per locomotive and the Italians paid around $5.1 million; Amtrak is paying $6.7 million for each loco, despite putting in a much larger order. (Protectionist rules requiring Siemens to build the locomotives in America—the ACS-64 is mostly manufactured in Sacramento—certainly didn’t help keep the price tag down.) The ACS-64 can travel 135 miles per hour, but will be limited to 125 in everyday operation. The standard EuroSprinter model, by contrast, does 140, despite having a less powerful engine.

The locomotives will also in all likelihood also be more difficult to maintain than off-the-shelf models, as customized products are by their very nature relatively untested. Amtrak’s Acela Express was infamous for its defects and weight. “They decided they wanted to make this the safest train in the world,” former Amtrak Chairman Thomas Downs said about the high-speed train. “All my engineers thought the rules were nuts,” he said, calling the Acela a “high-velocity bank vault.”

The Federal Railroad Administration likes to think that America is special, and so our trains have to be special too. We have more and longer freight trains, they say.

Which is true, but only in the interior of the country. The Northeast Corridor has very little freight traffic. The Long Island Rail Road, which must also abide by the FRA’s rules, has virtually none.

And it’s not clear that potential differences in freight traffic justify different designs, anyway. The length of freight trains is more or less irrelevant in crashes—a loaded freight train isn’t going to give way in a collision, whether it’s got 20 cars of electronics in Switzerland or 100 cars of corn in Iowa.

U.S. Department of Transportation studies have shown that the FRA’s rules do not lead to safer trains than those in other first world countries, and there are rumblings of change afoot at the FRA, but nothing has happened yet, and it’s too late for Amtrak to do anything about the latest order. Locomotives have lifetimes measured in the decades, so the deficiencies of the ACS-64 will be with us for a long time to come.

Check out Amtrak’s promotional video below, where a Siemens executive and Amtrak President Joseph Boardman put a positive spin on Amtrak’s very, very special new trains: