Updated March 30 at 6:25pm

Faster Northeast trains require safety changes, Amtrak CEO says


WASHINGTON - Amtrak will recommend new U.S. rail-safety regulations to allow it to replace its Acela trains in the Northeast U.S. with lighter, faster equipment, CEO Joseph Boardman said.

U.S. crashworthiness standards force Amtrak to use trains that have locomotives on both ends and are slower and heavier than bullet trains used in Europe and Asia, Boardman said in an interview. Those standards reflect that U.S. passenger trains often share tracks with freight railroads rather than operating on their own lines.

Existing standards apply to trains traveling as much as 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour). Writing new rules that relax railcar structural-strength requirements for faster trains “would allow for less use of fuel, quicker acceleration, a different performance profile,” Boardman, 64, said. “What we’re really looking for is a performance specification here.”

Amtrak last month announced it would seek bids to replace its 12-year-old fleet of 20 Acela trains operating between Washington and Boston instead of adding two cars to each train, a plan its inspector general questioned as too expensive. The Acela carried about 3.4 million passengers and produced about a fourth of Amtrak’s $2 billion in ticket revenue for the year ended Sept. 30.

Boardman, in the interview, said he’d like to add at least 10 to 12 trains before beginning to retire the current Acela fleet. The cost, for which Amtrak said it will seek information from potential suppliers in early 2013, may be $30 million to $40 million per trainset, Boardman said.

“It depends on how many we actually would purchase and whether anybody else in this country is going to move forward with high-speed trainsets,” he said.

Train competition

Amtrak in 1996 signed a contract valued at $1.2 billion to buy the original Acelas, which operate much more slowly than their maximum speed on most of the Northeast Corridor due to the limitations of tracks and tunnels.

Companies including Siemens AG, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd. may want to compete with Bombardier Inc. and Alstom SA, the joint suppliers of Acela equipment used since the service’s start 12 years ago. Amtrak is subject to rules that require its equipment to be made in the U.S.

Safety standards for passenger trains operating at more than 150 mph are being developed, Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said in an e-mail. Amtrak is “working with FRA and other members of the Railroad Safety Advisory Council to better define the car strength criteria for higher-speed passenger equipment,” he said.

Amtrak’s long-term plan for high-speed service in the Northeast envisions those trains running on dedicated tracks.

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