HORNELL, N.Y.—The future of American high-speed rail is sitting in a building older than the Battle of Gettysburg: a cavernous factory that holds the first shells of a $2 billion fleet of Amtrak Acela trains due to begin running from Washington, D.C., to Boston two years from now.
Even as Congress moves toward renewed debates over the future of both Amtrak and high-speed rail, the first of 28 new Acela train sets are starting to take shape here. They are the first new generation of passenger trains on the railroad since the Acela's debut in 2000.
For Amtrak, that means a chance to relaunch a service that has been both a commercial success and a procurement headache—and still the nearest approximation in the U.S. to the high-speed trains that whisk travelers among major cities in Europe and Asia.
Amtrak is buying 28 new sets of power cars and passenger coaches from French manufacturer Alstom SA, which is assembling the trains at its complex of plants in New York's Southern Tier. The train model, known as Avelia Liberty, is from a family of trains already in use in France and Italy, Amtrak executives say.
The new trains will have a top speed of 160 miles an hour, up from 150 miles an hour on the current fleet. They will be built to tilt up to 6.3 degrees, allowing trains to run faster in curves and save energy by avoiding braking for some turns.
Average speeds will be much lower, since the Acela will still run on the Northeast Corridor, whose curves will limit trains to top speed in just a few spots. And unlike high-speed trains in Europe and Asia, the Acela shares tracks with commuter trains and freight lines, requiring it to reduce speeds. The new trains will be capable of going up to 186 miles an hour if tracks are later upgraded, Alstom says.
The new Acelas will be about three feet longer than the current trains, but with shorter power cars and redesigned passenger cars. Amtrak says they will carry one-third more passengers with a maximum capacity of 378, up from the current 304.
The new trains will have upgraded interiors, including outlets and USB ports at each seat and wheelchair accessibility in every restroom, Amtrak says. The first of the 28 new Acelas is scheduled to enter service in summer 2021, replacing the existing fleet of 20 trains by the end of 2022. Amtrak says the larger fleet will allow more frequent, half-hourly Acela service at peak periods.
The railroad is hoping for a smoother launch than the first time around. The first Acela train set was delivered to Amtrak in October 2000, more than one year late, by a consortium of Alstom and Canada's Bombardier Inc. Amtrak pulled Acela trains from service in 2002 after cracks developed in critical shock absorbers.
In 2005, Amtrak pulled the trains from service again after cracks were found in braking equipment. The trains returned to service after the trouble was traced to a supplier. Despite the complications, the Acela became a success.
Even without meeting the target time of two hours, 11 minutes between Washington and New York, the railroad succeeded in peeling passengers away from airline shuttles.
Acelas carried more than 3.4 million passengers in fiscal 2018, and Amtrak said adjusted operating earnings for Acela trips was $318.8 million, more than 60% of the $524.1 million Amtrak earned overall on the Northeast Corridor.
For its new Acela fleet, Amtrak selected Alstom alone, using a $2.45 billion federal loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. Alstom says 95% of the trains' content is produced in the U.S., in keeping with the Buy America provisions of Amtrak's loan. But the railroad did receive a waiver to import the extruded aluminum shells of the passenger cars, whose honeycomb structure helps limit the trains' weight and improve efficiency, from Alstom's factory in Savigliano, Italy.
In Hornell, the Amtrak contract is changing the face of a factory complex that dates to the dawn of the railroad age. Hornell has been a center for railroad manufacturing, and the boom-and-bust cycles of that industry, since the New York and Erie Railroad opened a locomotive plant in 1850.
One April morning, workers in a massive plant built in 1860 were working on an overhaul of a light railcar from Baltimore, while an adjoining building held the final few double decker commuter coaches from a fleet Alstom is refurbishing for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Alstom is the largest employer in town. Its three plants around Hornell employ about 800 people, of whom about 250 are working on the new Acela fleet, a company spokeswoman said.
At peak capacity, the Hornell factories will be producing a passenger car a day, one power car every five days, and one cafe car every 10 days, said Michael MacDonald, the company's managing director for high-speed trains in North America.
BY TED MANN