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Amtrak’s Loco Locomotive Purchase for the Northeast Corridor

11:05 AM PDT on July 22, 2011

We’re pleased to welcome Stephen Smith as a new contributor to Streetsblog Capitol Hill. We’ll be running Stephen’s work on a regular basis, and you can catch more of his writing at his home blog, Market Urbanism.

Amtrak’s annual ridership may inch over 30 million for the first time this year, but the assault on its funding by House Republicans hasn’t abated. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chair of the House Transportation Committee, recently proposed slashing Amtrak’s federal subsidies by 25 percent over the next two years. While it’s tough to say how much deficit hawks will actually succeed in cutting, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Amtrak – and indeed public transportation in general – will get the cash that advocates would like. Given the political climate, Amtrak faces, realistically, two choices: do more with less, or cut service and raise fares.

Unfortunately, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s recent announcement of a $562.9 million loan to Amtrak to buy new locomotives for the Northeast Corridor suggests that they will not be doing more with less. The money will go to buy 70 electric locomotives, which, as Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations explains, are far more expensive than comparable European and Japanese models, and will lock us into outdated technology for decades to come.

Europe and Asia have realized the benefits of lighter and more nimble trains – cost, speed, and energy consumption among them – but Amtrak’s planned purchase is further proof that the U.S. is not quite there yet. One easy cost-saving move would be to wait two years for Positive Train Control, an anti-crash safety technology, to be fully installed along the Northeast Corridor. By 2015, Amtrak will no longer have to comply with the Federal Railroad Administration’s requirement that trains be able to withstand crashes with enormous freight trains. Free to buy lighter off-the-shelf foreign designs, Amtrak could then save 35-50 percent off the cost of the locomotives, as Alon notes.

An even more radical modernizing and cost-cutting measure (at least in the long run) would be to transition the Northeast Corridor Regional fleet from locomotive-hauled trains to electrical multiple units, or EMUs, in line with best practices in Europe and Asia. EMUs are, like subways in the US, individually-powered carriages, and standard models can be as cheap as the inflated price that Amtrak pays for its unpowered passenger railcars. The locomotive purchase locks Amtrak into buying more of these unpowered carriages in the future, making Amtrak’s decision to go with locomotives all the more important.

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