Happening Now

Amtrak LD: Why Semi-Permanent Trainset Idea Could Work

September 21, 2023

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

It’s been less than a month since Amtrak first showed members of the public some broad-brush conceptual ideas for how to incorporate the needs of the disability community into its replacement plans for long-distance equipment. And it didn’t take long for people to misinterpret what they heard, read, and saw in order to write off the whole idea.

That’s really too bad. Because Amtrak is trying pretty hard here to do a better job for the significant share of the disability community that relies on Amtrak as their only practical method of long-distance travel.

Let’s start with the first of many basic misunderstandings I’ve seen in public commentary since the public hearing at the end of August – “the trainsets are permanently coupled.”

No, they aren’t. Don’t skip over the word “semi” in all the materials, because it’s important. Semi-permanently coupled.

The very first question I asked Amtrak in August in advance of the public hearing was how they planned to handle seasonality and the need to increase or decrease consists. They absolutely can and will add cars, or sets of cars, as needed to increase capacity to handle seasonal surges. They’ll also buy enough cars so that they won’t need to rob one route to increase capacity on another.

Another basic misunderstanding: “this is THE design.” No, it isn’t. This is a concept, a basic building block. This is a way of telling industry that Amtrak would like to be able to do the things that these sketches show, but it will be up to the actual design engineers to sort out how they’ll execute the concept. The manufacturers will be competing with one another, in part, on how innovative they can be in bringing these kinds of ideas to life.

Another myth: “Amtrak didn’t consult with anyone before they did this.” Actually, yes they did. They consulted with a specialist engineering firm in the U.K. with current, contemporary expertise in passenger rail. Those designers helped to create this concept to be shared as part of the Request for Proposals process. Which gets us to a third basic misunderstanding, this time around timing.

Amtrak spent a year surveying the manufacturers to find the boundaries of what is and is not feasible. The Request for Information process resulted in several responses from a range of manufacturers...most names you would recognize and maybe a handful you wouldn’t. The Request for Proposals and negotiation and contract award will take place next year.

So, let’s shoot down yet one more myth: Amtrak must do this before the end of this fiscal year. No, they don't. They're horribly late, but they have until the end of Fiscal Year 2026, technically, to place orders for new equipment, and the plan is to get the order placed much sooner than that – likely sometime next year.

Is that much later than I would like? Yes, embarrassingly late. This should have happened many years ago. But in the absence of an H.G. Wells Time Machine to go back and change history, we have to accept that this is the timeline we are on. Even so, we believe it’s now time for Amtrak to show an appropriate sense of urgency and get moving faster on this procurement.

In our work with several congressional offices in recent weeks, we’ve found that they are as impatient as we are. Pro-Amtrak members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, and their staffs, are all frustrated that the opportunity they worked to create for Amtrak by passing the historic 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is rapidly passing us all by.

From myths now to reality. Here is what IS true: new long-distance equipment designs are late out of the barn, and it’s time to pick up the pace. Refurbishing and “refreshing” existing Superliners is acceptable as a stopgap measure, but provides neither the level of attractiveness nor the capacity needed to grow service at the scales envisioned in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. In fact, so far Amtrak hasn’t shown that it has the capacity to get cars that are laid up right now in Hialeah or Beech Grove or other spots around the country out on to the road delivering service. Today’s timeline for fielding new rolling stock is far too long, and I've been saying for months that Amtrak needs to find clever ways to accelerate design and delivery which don’t cut corners or compromise safety.

On August 31, we filed our formal comments on Amtrak’s petition for this sort of concept as an Alternative Method of Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. In our comments we endorsed this design approach, recognizing that what was shared with the public is not a finished design but a conceptual framework, a way of thinking about how to make sure that ADA passengers still get to enjoy diners, sleepers, lounges, showers, bathrooms, and coaches just as any other passenger does.

The real proof, of course, will be in how well the selected manufacturers turn these ideas into finished products. And the industry’s track record in U.S. markets is, admittedly, mixed. But after analyzing the concepts and consulting with our members who rely on ADA accommodations for their travel, we think this is worth supporting because the concept supports autonomy for all passengers, access to amenities, and redundancy for important features on board the trains.

You can read our full formal comment letter supporting Amtrak’s petition for alternative compliance by clicking on this link. But in case you don't click on the link, I’d like to close this article with the same thoughts we used to close our formal comments to Amtrak. Our bottom line is that physical accessibility is meaningless if the service doesn’t exist in your community, or is priced out of the reach of those who need it.

“It is critical that the U.S. increase access to frequent and reliable intercity rail service. Having accessible trainsets does very little good for a passenger with a disability if that train only stops once per day in the middle of the night, or if a room on a sleeper car costs upwards of three thousand dollars during the peak travel season. It does no good for that passenger with a disability if there is no service to their city at all.

According to the 2023 ‘Annual Report on People with Disabilities in America,’ the poverty rate for Americans with disabilities is more than twice as high as for those without disabilities. Providing frequent and affordable transportation alternatives for people who can’t drive long distances or afford ever-increasing airfare should be a key goal of U.S. rail policy.

Rail Passengers implores Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to immediately move to the next step of the procurement process for the next generation of Long-Distance equipment. Simply renewing the existing fleet is insufficient. The FRA’s Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study envisions an expanded network, necessitating a larger fleet of Long-Distance railcars. The success of this effort, and passenger rail programs more generally, depends on the ability of the FRA, Amtrak, and the rail manufacturing industry to work together to speed the delivery of new equipment. Waiting another ten to fifteen years before new equipment and corridors enter revenue service effectively ensures that Baby Boomers, America’s largest generational cohort, will be denied the benefits of this investment. It also means another ten to fifteen years of unnecessary flights, unnecessary highway deaths, and indefinitely deferred trips to see family and friends.”