11/06/2010

New Amtrak Northeast Corridor Electric Locos

I'm very interested, excited, and a little anxious about these coming new engines. The order for 70 Siemens “Cities Sprinter” ACS-64 electrics will completely replace the existing AEM-7 (the older DC and the newer AC units), and the quite recently-build HHP-8 units build as part of the Acela order.

[And now for some off-the-cuff ranting and rambling that need some more solid research to clarify some of my assumptions and impressions to be truly valid about Amtrak's sad history of locomotive designs.]

These engines are needed, there's no doubt there. The Northeast Corridor is at (or past) it's limit for capacity possible with the existing fleet and train cancelations from insufficient equipment availability have been increasing. But it speaks to the frustrating history Amtrak has with locomotives. Every single engine they've ever purchased new has been a modified design of freight units, modified foreign designs, or designed from scratch. The problem is there has been almost no market in North America to support domestic passenger engine design. The commuter rail field has had enough of a sustained market for a couple designs over the years - most recently the Motive Power family, and before that EMD's F59PHI. But those don't meet most of Amtrak's intercity needs. So freight designs have been modified - sometimes with great success as in the F40PH - but more often with designs that failed to meet the operating needs and were retired or deprecated very rapidly - the 8-32BWH or E60. The foreign imports have occasionally been amazing - the AEM-7 (and the Talgo trainsets) - but more often mediocre - the HHP-8. Both foreign and freight operating conditions and design needs are different enough from Amtrak's that a simple design modification is very likely to fail. The problem is that designs from scratch have the same issue of never being able to fully-anticipate every issue and even with heavy prototype field-testing will have unforeseen issues in the future.

The thing is, this issue is ALWAYS true of design in any field. The ideal is one like the North American freight diesel loco market which is large and robust enough to support multiple strong manufacturers with decades of experience to constantly iterate on their designs and specialize to the very distinctive operating conditions of this continent. (Foreign imports end up being unsuited and retired far before the anticipated lifespan the vast majority of the time.)

So Amtrak has no good options here, right? Well, somewhat. It is true that whatever design approach they choose will be fraught with teething unforeseen design issues. But by being very careful with which firms they select they can stack the deck in their favor. I feel that Siemens is probably among their better options, and they should have the skills to succeed. The problems will come when the decisions get made for political reasons instead of design qualifications. That's how you get HHP-8's being retired decades earlier than the average electric locomotive lifespan. One big advantage for these ACS-64's is their large fleet size. The one-off orphan units are always the first to be retired for maintenance and fleet management efficiency. The other big risk for these new engines? Sustained funding for maintenance. I don't know the details offhand enough to say, but given the recent Amtrak operating environment, I would bet that these engines were run into the ground with insufficient maintenance funding. That can shorten the lives of even very solidly-designed engines by decades. It is far easier to get money for something new and shiny than to maintain something people take for granted. (I'm guessing that's why the AEM-7's which as far as I know have been a very successful series are going to be replaced. They're not young, but in many other contexts they would be kept on for another decade or so with regular maintenance and overhauls, not discarded because that's more politically-viable.)

So what was the point of this diatribe? Well, essentially that I'm worried that these will become yet another in the long line of failed designs that needs to be replaced in a decade. But I am still excited, if only for the chance to have something new to photograph!

[via Progressive Railroading]

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