The Pauper’s Crown:
Amtrak’s Acela Express and the Limitations of the Northeast Corridor
Master of Public Policy Candidate, 2012
Written as Master of Planning, 2012
University of Southern California
Price School of Public Policy
Amtrak’s Acela Express, initially touted as next-generation high speed rail, has fallen well short of lofty expectations. Its lackluster performance, and the comedy of errors that was the Acela project, are directly attributable to two key factors: rapidly-decaying and inadequate infrastructure for high speed operations throughout the Northeast Corridor, and an utter lack of effective leadership and management within both Congress and Amtrak. In short, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is not sufficient for high speed operations. Acela alone will not catalyze the development of true US high speed rail operations, and Amtrak is not in a position to lead America into a new era of passenger rail travel. To do both will require new leaders in implementation-related sectors to reinvigorate the push for high speed rail.
TRAIN STATUS: LATE
There was perhaps no more fitting or auspicious beginning for Amtrak’s Acela Express service than the day Acela completed its first scheduled revenue run on December 11, 2000 – Washington DC Union Station to Boston South Station – 10 minutes late.1 Billed by Amtrak as a revenue generator that would serve as the basis for its eventual financial and operational self-sufficiency, achievements of both the Acela Project and the Northeast High Speed Rail Improvement Program (NHRIP) have fallen well short of lofty expectations.
The Acela experience has made two facts about passenger rail in the United States very clear, both of which are increasingly important to understand as popular discussion about the creation of a national high speed rail (HSR) network continues to grow. First and foremost, the Northeast Corridor (NEC), as a host for HSR, is entirely inadequate. NEC is simply too antiquated and too congested for any sort of HSR operation, regardless of NHRIP capital expenditure on infrastructure upgrades. Secondly, the history of the Acela implementation program, and its many missteps, demonstrates very clearly that Acela’s difficulties have arisen not out of the basic HSR concept so much as they have from the misapplication of that concept. Amtrak leadership was unable to effectively manage and monitor the project, due to both mis-prioritization as well Amtrak’s management structure itself. In short, Acela’s troubled history has proven that attempting to upgrade existing commuter, regional, and/or cargo rail rights of way for proximate new, high-tech HSR operation is simply not good enough.
ONE MAN’S TRASH: THE CREATION OF AMTRAK
After World War II, passenger rail profitability declined dramatically in the wake of widespread proliferation of the automobile.2 The Interstate Commerce Commission, as profitability of all routes declined in the 1950s and 60s, wound up driving railroads into financial turmoil by legally compelling them to run “money-losing passenger trains.”3 Nowhere was the drop in revenues felt more acutely than in the Northeast, where the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads merged in 1968 – later incorporating the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad as well. The newly-created company, Penn Central, immediately became the nation’s largest railroad; as a result of the merger, “most of the Northeast Corridor came under a single owner.”4 The merger lasted only 872 days, with Penn Central filing for bankruptcy in 1970.5
In order to continue operating any form of passenger service and “to get Penn Central and the other big railroads out of the failing passenger business,” Congress created Amtrak in 1971.6 Amtrak was to assume operation of unprofitable routes and, as such, took control of Penn Central’s NEC passenger operations. Shortly thereafter, responsibility for NEC infrastructure operations and maintenance (O&M) was assigned to Amtrak as well.7 Amtrak went from merely running unprofitable rail services to, overnight, running unprofitable rail services, retaining O&M liability across an unprofitable system, and honoring the permanent sanctity of railroaders’ unions’ contracts as stipulated by Congress.
This, Amtrak critics argue, is what constitutes Amtrak’s “design deficit” – why the beleaguered rail carrier has never turned a profit. The Nixon Administration sought the creation of a quasi-public organization to assume responsibility for operating what few functional passenger rail lines remained in the US, yet never fully funded it. R. Kent Weaver argues that, for Nixon, the creation of Amtrak politically and pragmatically “represented the best method of cutting service” while at the same time serving as “the most effective way of preserving and improving service” in the near term.8 Nixon figured the most expedient thing to do would be to create Amtrak, downsize route offerings, and – over time – allow it to die a slow death; in short, “Amtrak’s future deficits were designed into its finances from the beginning.”9 Amtrak’s operational ambiguity and its poorly defined raison d’être led to an equally-uninspired management which had two main responsibilities: to request annual Congressional re-appropriations and to keep the railroad chugging along.
AMTRAK’S SILVER BULLET…TRAIN
NEC HSR began with Amtrak’s Metroliner express service – initiated under Penn Central in 1969. Metroliner reached a top speed of 125 mph but, while originally intended to run the length of NEC, it only ran between New York City and Washington DC – overhead catenary electrification only existed south of New Haven, CT. The time required to change equipment in New York and New Haven added upwards of 30-45 minutes to the total trip along NEC.
Congress realized the importance of extending catenary infrastructure through Boston to lay the groundwork for HSR – that doing so would greatly reduce trip times and increase ridership and revenues. With the creation of NHRIP in 1991, Congress enabled the funding of key NEC “rail infrastructure improvements, including electrification of the line between New Haven and Boston.”10 The plan emphasized the importance of significantly retrofitting decaying NEC infrastructure assets before any HSR-related capital expenditure was to occur. Congress tied enhanced NEC Regional Service and critical NEC infrastructure upgrades to the longer-term development of NEC HSR operations, using the allure of HSR to secure the requisite funding for Amtrak.
Amtrak quickly set about NEC infrastructure improvements – constructing catenary lines, replacing old wood rail ties with new concrete ties capable of handling higher operating speeds, and even replacing aging and worn rails – and NEC Regional trip times dropped immediately. But, in 1995, Amtrak gave the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation an expected pricetag of $1.6 billion to “achieve limited high-speed service,” $900 million more than what was originally appropriated.11 After some Congressional wrangling over predictions that “the $1.6 billion expenditure would not address capacity-related issues and capital investment needs that are critical to the success of the NHRIP,” Amtrak was hesitantly allowed to open bidding on new NEC HSR equipment, with a decision on additional funding delayed.12 Congress remained concerned that Amtrak might very well skimp on critical NEC infrastructure upgrades, like catenary tension tightening, in hopes of expediting ill-fated HSR service initiation.
By the beginning of 1996, Amtrak was being courted by three different consortia and, on March 15, 1996, it announced Bombardier/Alstom would be awarded a contract to design and build a revolutionary high speed tilt train set named “American Flyer.” Tilting had been around for more than a decade at the time, but this trainset incorporated a brand-new set of tilting mechanisms modeled after the French Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV). The sets were designed with a base that allowed the train body to gradually lean into curves, reducing G-forces felt in the cabin and enabling faster curvature operating speeds. Delivery was scheduled for late 1999.
But Congressional patience with Amtrak was growing thin. That Amtrak was pursuing major HSR expenditure without having first followed through on NHRIP led to the passage of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, “which essentially laid the groundwork for dismantling the government’s passenger-rail monopoly.”13 The Act allowed Amtrak to both cut unprofitable routes and work towards restructuring union agreements for the first time since its creation. But, most importantly, it “infused $2.2 billion in capital funds” intended to fully cover the American Flyer project’s cost.14 The money came with but one catch: that Amtrak be operationally and financially self-sufficient within five years. Congress seemed ready and willing to wash its hands of the annoyance of Amtrak once and for all.
To secure the funding, Amtrak projected a more than 250% increase in annual passengers as well as an annual profit from the new service of $219 million, both by 2003.15 So dependent was Amtrak on Congressional funding that it was willing to produce these outrageous projections. While Amtrak appropriations were generally enough money for Congress to debate appropriating initially, they were comparatively small enough to not warrant significant Congressional follow-through. As such, zero incentive for management accountability was created within Amtrak. Either way, Amtrak embraced the appropriation; by 1998 the race to get the American Flyer to the rails – and its profits to the bank – was on.
A PIG ON THE RAILS
No sooner did Amtrak announce the winning bid for the American Flyer in 1996, and submit to the terms of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, than the problems began mounting quickly and in increasingly disturbing numbers. At its purest level, the comedy of errors that was the American Flyer/Acela project arose because Amtrak simply “ignored time-tested extant bullet-train technology and insisted on developing its own.”16 Furthermore, Amtrak leadership was under immense pressure from all sides to build the train and get it into revenue operation while having collectively little experience managing a railroad.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) held the American Flyer to crash safety standards that senior Amtrak officials considered overly-stringent, forcing Bombardier/Alstom to double the weight of the equipment, primarily on the train’s undercarriage. The resulting trainset was so bottom-heavy and awkwardly-shaped that French engineers dubbed the American Flyer “Le Cochon” – “The Pig.”17 The added weight put such strain on the trainsets’ suspension systems that initial service, scheduled originally for December 1999, was delayed a year to December 2000 because of technical problems “first with excessive wheel wear and later with defective bolts and other assorted issues.”18
The Acela brand was unveiled in March 1999 just in time for a major controversy to erupt over the trainsets’ width. During the sets’ first (and only) test runs, Amtrak realized Acela was built 4 inches wider than initially specified. NEC trackage was built, in some cases, before the turn of the 20th century, with bare minimum Association of American Railroads (AAR) Plate C track clearance of 10ft 8in. To compensate, Acela was designed with a maximum tilt of 6.8 degrees so it could round the curves faster while still maintaining minimum AAR Plate C clearance.19 With the additional 4 inches of width, however, Acela’s maximum tilt was reduced one third to 4.2 degrees.20 If Acela reached curvature speeds that caused it to tilt more than its allotted 4.2 degrees, it could sideswipe trains on adjacent tracks; FRA imposed curvature speed limits at half (or less) of Acela’s top speed. Amtrak leadership sheepishly claimed that Acela’s tilt reduction “would not significantly impact schedule timing.”21
With initial service delayed by a year, Amtrak fined Bombardier and Alstom once Acela service began in December 2000. The consortium then turned and sued Amtrak, “seeking damages in connection with the high-speed project,” alleging Amtrak management “ordered 9,000 engineering changes that increased cost, delayed production – just selecting draperies for the windows took two years – and added thousands of pounds of weight.”22 After more than three years in court, the case was settled out of court with a $42.5 million payment from Amtrak to the consortium. Amtrak was publicly embarrassed, Congress was livid, and Acela still had yet to turn a profit.
Still further, in the midst of ligation – in August 2002 – cracks were found in Acela’s tilting damper brackets that kept trains from, at high speeds, “swaying,” or tilting out of control. The cracks led to suspension of all Acela Express service for several weeks. Less than three years later, in April 2005, cracks were once again found – but this time in Acela’s brake discs. All 20 Acelas were removed from service until the summer. As a result, rigorous inspection of the Acela fleet has been mandated, leading to a significant rise in Acela O&M costs. Amtrak “rarely has more than thirteen or fourteen of the twenty sets running at one time.”23 Acelas are, in the words of an Amtrak engineer, “mechanical lemons.”24
OLD DOG, EVEN OLDER TRICKS
Designed for a top operating speed of 150 mph, Acela hits maximum velocity on just one 20 mile stretch of track in Rhode Island, and averages a paltry 71mph the rest of the way. Such underwhelming performance directly results from NEC infrastructure, which is notorious for its speed-reducing curves. Between New York and Boston alone, NEC track curves would form “the equivalent of over 11 full circles.”25 As such, and given the problems surrounding Acela’s reduced tilt capacity, FRA has mandated Acela speed limits of 80 mph along the vast majority of NEC North End trackage. Coupled with the extreme curvature of the track on the North End, catenary tension along NEC’s South End still has not been tightened enough to allow top speed operations, with Acela limited to a 135 mph top speed south of New York (slower Regional service tops out at 125 mph along the same stretch of track). If Acela exceeded 135 mph along that stretch of track, the fragile, century-old catenary line could oscillate violently enough to the point of breaking apart.
Even though Amtrak was given a master plan to improve NEC infrastructure for HSR operations (NHRIP), it “did not adopt this plan and did not prepare a comprehensive management plan of its own.”26 “Had it focused greater attention on critical infrastructure issues,” Amtrak would have been able to “attain the 3-hour trip-time goal” between New York and Boston laid out as part of NHRIP.27 Still further, it could have more adequately addressed the 72 work elements “that FRA identified in [NHRIP] as necessary to reduce trip times,” of which the status of 51 is still unknown.28
Amtrak effectively rushed the untested and excessively-heavy Acela trainset into service in hopes of generating enough profit to later return to NEC infrastructure upgrades. Amtrak leadership, having had collectively little experience with large-scale intercity rail operations, did not consider the problem of archaic infrastructure slowing Acela down. Neither, it seems, did those in Congress who knew better, allowing Amtrak to effectively back itself into a corner. Currently, Amtrak argues, $52 billion is required over the next 20 years to upgrade catenary infrastructure, interlocking junctions, and century-plus old bridges and tunnels.
But NEC trackage and infrastructure problems are but one part of understanding why Acela Express service languishes as it does; another is the severe degree of NEC rail traffic congestion. NEC rail traffic, in addition to Amtrak, comes from eight commuter rail lines and seven freight rail lines. All together, these traffic sources account for more than 259 million passengers and 14 million car-miles worth of freight movement per year, making NEC trackage “among the most heavily utilized rail networks in the world.”29
The extremely congested NEC tracks constantly hum with activity, reducing maximum operating speeds for Acela. FRA mandates maximum station pass through speeds for Acela far below speed limits on any given stretch of NEC track. Additionally, given the high density of commuter rail stops on the various lines, Acela trainsets must constantly throttle down from higher speeds when approaching stations. Still further, as commuter rail and NEC Regional traffic make frequent station stops, Acela must effectively leapfrog slower services to maintain higher speeds. But not all NEC segments are directionally double-tracked, further slowing daily Acela operations – trains get stuck behind slower-moving services until a passing lane opens and directional single-tracking widens out.
ROLL ON, TRAIN
The history of Amtrak’s Acela Express is valuable in clearly demonstrating the limitations of attempting to retrofit an old and deteriorating corridor for HSR service – as is being advocated currently for new HSR services nationwide. Acela has shown, perhaps most importantly, the need to secure single-purpose right of way for true HSR operations, as well as the need to segregate various rail uses to optimize efficiency.
Even if adequate infrastructure should be put in place, however, the question of leadership remains unresolved. The leadership history of Amtrak does not inspire confidence in its ability to usher America into a new era of rail travel; nor does lack of Congressional follow-through with the railroad – no consequences for Amtrak emerged following noncompliance with the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997. Dynamic leadership at the implementation and financing levels of HSR remains lacking – it is on the backs of new leaders in those sectors that the fortunes of US HSR will either rise or remain interminably stuck in the siding.
“Acela Express Debut.” Trainorders.com. 11 Dec 2000, 22 Sep 2010. .
Amtrak, Bombardier, Alstom. “Amtrak and Bombardier/Alstom Consortium Announce Resolution of Legal Claims.” Press Release. Retrieved 27 Sep 2010. .
Amtrak High Speed Rail Project Office, Old Saybrook, CT. Quarterly Report on Amtrak’s Northeast High-Speed Rail Improvement Project, 2 April 1997.
Carr, David. “Slower than a Speeding Bullet: Why Amtrak’s new Acela looks fast but is not.” Washington Monthly. 1 October 2001. .
Dao, James. “Acela, Built to be Rail’s Savior, Bedevils Amtrak at Every Turn.” New York Times. 24 April 2005. .
Daughen, Joseph R; Binzen, Peter. The Wreck of Penn Central. Beard Books: Washington DC, 1999.
Dunn, James A. Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility. Brookings Institution Press: Washington DC, 1998.
“Inside the Acela.” Washington Post Online. 25 Sep 2010. .
McCommons, James. Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. Chelsea Green Publishing Company: White River Junction, Vermont, 2009.
“The Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan.” NEC Master Plan Working Group. Version 1.a, May 2010.
United States GAO. Amtrak’s Management of Northeast Corridor Improvements Demonstrates Need for Applying Best Practices. Washington: 2004.
United States GAO. Resources, Community, and Economic Development Division. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor: Information on the Status and Cost of Needed Improvements. Washington: 1995.
Weaver, R. Kent. The Politics of Industrial Change: Railway Policy in North America. Brookings Institution Press: Washington DC, 1984.
1 “Acela Express Debut.” Trainorders.com. 11 Dec 2000, 22 Sep 2010. .
2 Dunn, James A. Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998. p.114.
3 Ibid, p.114.
4 McCommons, James. Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009. p.82.
5 Daughen, Joseph R; Binzen, Peter. The Wreck of Penn Central. Washington DC: Beard Books, 1999 p.12.
6 McCommons, James. Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009. p.82.
7 Ibid, p.82.
8 R. Kent Weaver, The Politics of Industrial Change: Railway Policy in North America, Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1984. p.93.
9 Dunn, James A. Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998. p.117.
10 United States. GAO. Resources, Community, and Economic Development Division. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor: Information on the Status and Cost of Needed Improvements. Washington: GPO, 1995. p.35.
11 Ibid, p.35.
12 Ibid, p.35.
13 Carr, David. “Slower than a Speeding Bullet: Why Amtrak’s new Acela looks fast but is not.” Washington Monthly. October 2001. .
14 Ibid, Carr.
15 Amtrak High Speed Rail Project Office, Old Saybrook, CT. Quarterly Report on Amtrak’s Northeast High-Speed Rail Improvement Project, 2 April 1997, p.2.
16 Carr, David. “Slower than a Speeding Bullet: Why Amtrak’s new Acela looks fast but is not.” Washington Monthly. October 2001. .
17 Dao, James. “Acela, Built to be Rail’s Savior, Bedevils Amtrak at Every Turn.” New York Times. April 24, 2005.
18 “Acela Express.” TGVweb.com, 22 Sep 2010. .
19 “Inside the Acela.” Washington Post Online. 25 Sep 2010. .
20 Ibid, Washington Post.
21 Ibid, TGVweb.
22 Amtrak, Bombardier, Alstom. “Amtrak and Bombardier/Alstom Consortium Announce Resolution of Legal Claims.” Pess Release. Retrieved 2010 Sep 27. .
23 McCommons, James. Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009. p.82.
24 Ibid, p.81.
25 “Acela Express.” TGVweb.com, 22 Sep 2010. .
26 United States. GAO. Amtrak’s Management of Northeast Corridor Improvements Demonstrates Need for Applying Best Practices. Washington: GPO, 2004. p.26.
27 Ibid, p.26.
28 Ibid, p.26.
29 NEC Master Plan Working Group, The Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan. p.ES-1.