When Amtrak’s sleek new Airo train cars roll off the assembly line in 2026, they’re headed for the Cascades route in the Pacific Northwest.
But some experts think the new California-built vehicles — with upgraded safety features — should head to our region first to replace some of Amtrak’s oldest train cars running on the heavily trafficked Northeast Corridor.
The Amfleet rail cars, the workhorses of Amtrak’s routes, including the Northeast Regional from Washington to Boston, meet current federal safety standards, but continuing to use them on the high-speed corridor creates potential risks, said Paul Reistrup, who was the second president of the national railroad.
“At speeds up to 125 mph, no rail passenger service in North American railroad history has operated passenger cars so old, so fast,” he wrote in a January letter to federal regulators.
Reistrup’s concerns stem from the 2015 crash of Amtrak train 188, which derailed in Philadelphia’s Frankford section, killing eight people and seriously injuring 46 others. After a yearlong investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board said the structure of the Amfleet rail cars contributed to the casualties, though it determined the cause was a distracted driver who took a turn too fast.
As the cars toppled and skidded on their sides, windows popped out and four people who were ejected from the train were killed. Many others were wounded as they were thrown from their seats and collided with other people and flying luggage.
Amtrak’s $7.3 billion order for up to 83 Airo trainsets from Siemens, capable of speeds up to 125 mph, addresses one factor that made the Philadelphia crash so horrific. Like all modern trains, the new Airo locomotives and cars are designed and built as one unit instead of separate vehicles coupled together. This leads to a smoother ride, and it’s also harder for the cars to tip and overturn.
After the derailment, the NTSB also called for other train-design changes to better protect passengers in side-impact crashes.
“As time went on, we learned that you need to depend on the structure of the sides and the roof — what I call lateral strength,” Reistrup, a civil engineer who worked for decades on both freight and passenger railroads, said in a recent interview. “I never remember in all my many, many years ... testing for a side impact.”
Timeline for Northeast Corridor’s new cars?
Amtrak said customers who ride along the Northeast Corridor can rest easy until the new Airo cars arrive. “The existing trains meet all the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety standards,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
At the time, that section of track in Philadelphia did not have Positive Train Control, a system that automatically slows a locomotive down to avoid collisions or derailing. Currently, all of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and its trains have PTC.
The company has said it plans to replace up to 40% of its non-Acela fleet by 2031, starting on the Cascades route and then phasing in the Airos elsewhere.
The Amtrak spokesperson said the company hopes to have some Airos working on the Northeast Corridor in 2027.
It is also unclear when the cars are scheduled to be rolled out on the Keystone service between New York and Harrisburg. Those trains use Amtrak’s Metrorail cars, currently 54 years old.
Evolving Northeast Corridor trains
Train cars were built to protect passengers from being propelled forward in a straight-ahead crash but not from lateral force, NTSB said after the Train 188 crash. In its findings, the board recommended new federal design standards to strengthen rail cars against side impacts and a study of whether seat belts would better protect passengers.
In addition, the board recommended tighter standards for railcar windows, concluding that the four people ejected would have survived if the windows had been secure.
The Federal Railroad Administration issued a rule in 2018 for high speed trains (called Tier III) that allows passenger cars to be made of lighter material with “crush zones” to absorb impacts on the outside but hardened passenger compartments.
Older rail cars like the Amfleets that ride along the Northeast Corridor are not covered because the rule applies only to cars ordered after 2018.
French rail manufacturer Alstom is currently building in an upstate New York plant the first cars that must conform to the new standard — 28 Avelia Liberty trainsets to replace Acelas on the Northeast Corridor, at a cost of $2 billion. Capable of speeds up to 160 m.p.h., they are expected to start service late this year or in early in 2024.
‘We’re trying to save lives’
Reistrup, 90, was Amtrak’s president from 1975 to 1978 and oversaw the rollout of the Amfleet rail cars, which were built by the now-defunct Budd Co. in Philadelphia. But his interest in challenging the way Amtrak operates continues. He’s also senior adviser to AmeriStarRail, a private venture that proposes to run Amtrak’s Acela on the Northeast Corridor with more trains and cheaper tickets. The current Acelas have only business and first-class seats.
In 2019, Ameristar bid $1 for the Acela 2.0 contract. It said it would take over and expand the buy from Alstom to 78 Liberty trainsets, with access to $5 billion from investors.
Amtrak rejected the bid as outside the scope of the request for proposals, which were based on two levels of service for the NEC, the company’s busiest route, said Scott R. Spencer, chief operating officer of AmeriStarRail.
“Amtrak’s acquisition of new Acela trains and the Airo trains is consistent with (the federal) NEC FUTURE plan. ... (which) has determined that future Northeast Corridor service should include premium express service and a corridor service offering more stops,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement.
AmeriStar said its approach would make sure new cars replaced the oldest in the fleet faster.
“We’re not trying to cause trouble for them (Amtrak),” Reistrup said. “We’re trying to save lives.” ——— (c)2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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