Trains For America

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Amtrak Turboliners for sale (Check the “comments” for spirited discussion)

It is hard to believe that this once innovative rail passenger equipment is 30 years old. My how time flies when your basic infrastructure is going to hell in a handcart.

Albany’s Times-Union business writer Cathy Woodruff has a splendid account of the Turboliner history, operational aspects, and prospects. This is a total head shaking disaster.

A decade ago, they were the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to bring high-speed rail service to upstate New York.

Now, in the fading wake of a contentious custody battle between Amtrak and the state Department of Transportation, they are for sale.

Amtrak officials have set no asking price and a spokesman said “any and all options will be considered” for selling the trains individually or in groups.

Note, Woodruff has a detailed and comprehensive time line and professional appraisals of the equipment’s capabilities today.

I am sure the forums will soon be ablaze.

Read the time line carefully. Observe one Joseph Boardman (now Amtrak interim president) complaining that Amtrak is dragging its feet. This kind of thing really makes you wonder.

The comparisons to our present situation are so obvious as beg commentary. It just seems that proponents of good transportation policy are the hostages of bureaucrats and special interest groups. It can be summed up, I think, in three words: no political will. It’s early Sunday morning. Maybe I’m wrong.

FURTHER REFLECTION: One of Amtrak’s major difficulties is frequent changes in top management. The Turboliner soap opera seems to be  part of this thing where what is a great idea today is completely discarded at the end of the week.

Yes, it may have been a good idea to discard the idea, but it looks like Amtrak and New York state were $60 million deep in this one. You can’t just walk away from this kind of agreement like it is monopoly money.

A reader observed already that Amtrak has an acute equipment shortage. These units should be running somehwere.

Amtrak urgently needs stable management, stable funding, and a board commited to general corporate oversight. Again, I point to Alex Kummant’s departure as the key event. Keep watching.


Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Regional USA Passenger Rail

25 Responses

  1. Peter Laws says:

    Not wrong, but recall these are turbine powered. Turbines drink fuel like it’s 50 cents a gallon.

    I also recall reading that the HVAC wasn’t up to the large windows.

    It *is* interesting that Boardman is now on the other side of the fence. I remember reading on some fora that this fiasco was to be Amtrak’s downfall and that NYS held all the cards, blah, blah, blah.

    Yeah, well.

  2. Allan says:

    Three refurbished sets sitting idle and Amtrak is complaining about equipment shortages?

    Do the other countries just run them better than we do?

    If there is a buyer at a good price, then so be it. Otherwise, or until that buyer shows up, this would be great for one of those Midwest HSR lines. Improve the tracks and put these puppies on it until it could be electrified.

  3. patlynch says:

    Allan, you certainly may be right. It looks like this was an ill-conceived project from day one and Amtrak got cold feet over the issue of orphan equipment and keeping parts. I could be mistaken.

    Of course, Amtrak knew that would be the case from the start.

    This may be a clue as to why, at least in part, Amtrak needs an Inspector General.

    Except for the fact that somebody is going to have to keep ’em rolling, these would be good for Memphis-Little Rock-Fort Worth. (OK. UP management would have kittens, but it was an amusing thought,)

    Seriously, somebody who might be satisfied with 90 mph could probably get these at a real good price. Who knows?

  4. Infra says:

    What are the most pressing concerns with America’s transportation systems? Voice your concerns today, and join the national discussion on how to improve infrastructure throughout the country.

  5. Dan Phillips says:

    Why not use them on some Midwest or Pacic Northwest corridor?

  6. adirondacker12800 says:

    Do the other countries just run them better than we do?

    No other country runs them. They suck down fuel like it was free, they don’t perform better than a regular old everyday diesel and they are a maintenance headache.

    Why not use them on some Midwest or Pacic Northwest corridor?

    Because They suck down fuel like it was free, they don’t perform better than a regular old everyday diesel and they are a maintenance headache…..

  7. Allan says:

    Then who will buy them?

    Does anyone have number on the fuel usage?

    I did a little research and found some interesting info. Apparently the refitted engines are supposed to be more fuel efficient.

    —What about fuel efficiency? “Turbines are designed for maximum efficiency at full load,” says Davila. “The partial-load efficiency of a diesel is better, but the full-load efficiency of a turbine is very close to that of a diesel. A turbine-electric would offer a much faster response to changing speed conditions than a diesel-electric. And, a turbine powerplant is much lighter.”—

    —Depending upon severity of service, powerplant removal and rebuilding will be required after 12,000 to 15,000 operating hours. The cost of an overhaul is estimated at about $0.65 per locomotive mile. R&R can be accomplished during one shift in a running maintenance facility, affording locomotive availability percentages in the high 90s.

    These figures, Pier says, are competitive with diesel-electric locomotives and superior to North American electric units. But for natural-gas-powered turbines, time between overhauls can as much as double, yielding a maintenance cost per mile of about $0.38, including costs for repairing subsystems. This figure is based upon experience with stationary natural-gas turbines.—

  8. kdub says:

    State of North Carolina: Pleeeeeeeeeease get these trains! It would help with future HSR service a lot. Even if they never get used for real high-speed service, it could serve as a precursor once SEHSR service begins.

  9. John Bredin says:

    When did the Amtrak-New York State Turboliner deal start falling apart?

    May I suggest that, when the deal was made, Amtrak’s shortage of equipment far outweighed the fuel consideration **at the fuel prices then prevailing** and therefore the deal made sense then for both Amtrak and NYS.

    May I further suggest that when the price of fuel skyrocketed, the equation tipped definitively to the other side, and the deal no longer made sense from Amtrak’s perspective. Conversely, if the original contract was drafted so NYS’s operating contribution was fixed (so many millions per year), rather than variable (i.e. a percentage of operating costs), then NYS wouldn’t give a tinker’s d*mn how much Amtrak was losing on the deal and would want to enforce it.

    In other words, may I suggest that the changed position of Amtrak regarding the Turboliners was not a sign of unstable management but basically rational management? Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and all that. $60 millions may have been spent, but throwing good money after bad is hardly a rational policy.

  10. patlynch says:

    Mr. Bredin, your input is very much appreciated.

    So let me see if I can wrap my little mind around this one (and no disrespect intended). It never occurred to Amtrak management that the price of oil might increase? The oil embargo is an event of 1974, so it should have been fresh on everybody’s mind.

    FiveTwo years before this deal was struck and equipment delivered, we were lining up for gas on alternate days of the week depending on the last digit of your license plate. (I think that’s how it worked in Montana.) Things changed forever when that embargo went into effect and most folks took it into account.

    Most of us who follow transportation issues non-professionally are very aware that fuel prices in the United States are well below international levels. Are we to presume that Amtrak never thought there might be a “day of reckoning?” Looks like management’s fault over here.

    It may be, as you seem to be suggesting, that New York state acted in bad faith by failing to negotiate a more “reasonable” arrangement. I hesitate to embrace that position.

  11. NikolasM says:

    There is not much in the way of spare parts beyond the three sets either… That is an expensive maintenance headache. These trains would not work well in the Carolina heat.

  12. Allan says:

    Nik, I don’t think the Carolina heat would be a factor. Otherwise one couldn’t use turbojet aircraft there either.

    The biggest problem is whether the fuel consumption is prohibitive.

    If you dedicated them to one line then only the mechs on that line need to be trained for the maintenance. Essential spare parts are stored onsite.

  13. Chris Bujara says:

    While I enjoyed several trips on the turbotrains in their early years on the Hudson Division, restoring them to operation in this day and age doesn’t make much sense. Huge windows and sleek looks aside, they offer no operational advantages over a traditional diesel powered train, and some sizable disadvantages as mentioned above.

    Setting the problematic power units aside, I wonder if the coaches could be upgraded and re-used, like VIA’s LRC coaches, now separated from their original MLW locomotives and pulled by GE P42s? There should be some way to solve the A/C issues. Amtrak’s Talgo trains in the Pacific Northwest offer a precedent for maintaining an oddball fleet of coaches, though I expect it’s far easier to get parts for them than for 30-year-old equipment from a defunct manufacturer. I guess it would probably be more economical to resurrect the old Heritage Fleet at this point, but it could be a way to recoup some of the investment.

    As for Amtrak making bad decisions, they certainly have a history of that. I’m sure someone at Amtrak was thinking about future fuel cost increases, and I KNOW someone was thinking about what a maintenance headache these things always were and would always be. Unfortunately, Amtrak leadership has tended to ignore reality over the years, particularly in Downs and Warrington’s successive reigns of error, in which the turbo deal and other fiascos were initiated.

  14. NikolasM says:

    No Allan,

    I meant that the A/C is too weak to deal with the Carolina heat…

  15. HockeyFan says:

    Let’s see: they accelerate slower than diesel units, they are far less fuel efficient, and the only other countries currently running Turbo trains are Egypt and Iran.
    Amtrak management may not be so dumb after all.
    Face it, NY wanted a make-work contract for Super Steel NY and a sexy train. They didn’t have the money or political will to pay to improve the tracks. Fast tracks = fast trains, no matter what type they are. Let’s forget about these oddballs and fix up those tracks. Let’s electrify them too. That’s where you get real fast acceleration and fuel efficiency.

  16. MadPark says:

    I’m told the HVAC package in both the original trains and the updated versions are seriously wanting – too hot in summer and too cold in winter – making even the use of the cars separate from power plant a real problem. Time to say farewell to an early 1970s experiment that did not payoff over the long run and never will. Ta-ta Turbos!

  17. adirondacker12800 says:

    They didn’t have the money or political will to pay to improve the tracks

    Ah but they have. In the 50s it took four hours to get from NYC to Albany. It now takes 2:30.

    Electrification would be a problem. There’s the cost. And they would most likely use catenary instead of third rail which means dual mode trains – third rail south of Croton, catenary north of Croton. How about faster diesels, maybe getting Metro North to allow speeds higher than 90, and then think about electrification. .

  18. Wisconsin’s governor is buying two Talgos to upgrade the Milwaukee service, rather than buying the Rohr trains. That’s probably prudent, as the French trains that preceded the Rohrs didn’t perform too well in the winter, something that poses problems in the Lake Ontario snowbelt. He has, however, saddled himself with fixed-formation trains, another problem that these Rohr trains would pose for any potential buyer.

  19. Nathanael says:

    Really, despite the cost, switching the entire Hudson Line to catenary is the way to go. Metro-North would have to buy more of its dual-modes (which they already use on the New Haven Line) and would have some extra single-modes; but they could put the single-modes into Harlem Line service or refit them for increased LIRR service — or simply have them rebuilt as dual-modes.

  20. Brett says:

    I agree just improve the tracks and
    have the newer disel locomo,doing 90
    to 110 is a small step toward reduceing
    times&getting up to par with the 21st centry
    for and to major us cites and will not cost
    billions but will create thousands of jobs!

  21. dAve says:

    What everyone forgets is that NYS upgraded the tracks on the upper Empire Corridor to 110mph standards nearly two decades ago. The Turboliners were running at these speeds – and the rebuilt Turbos were intended to operate to 125mph. In fact, the dual-modes now in service are geared for 110mph. For service at 79mph and below, the performance difference between diesel stock and Turbo stock was negligible. However, once you get over 80mph, the difference is quite noticeable – the acceleration of the diesel electric loco falls off dramatically. It takes forever for such a train to get up to 110mph.
    So the Turboliners in fact dramatically cut travel times… in fact, if you went back to the 1980s, the Turboliner sets were scheduled for 2:15 between New York and Albany… today, the best time is 2:30. Sometimes it is as high as nearly 3 hours.
    So WHY would you want a Turbo set – well, THIS is why.
    Their biggest drawback is and always has been their cost.
    Although the original French sets served over 30 years on the SNCF, it was also clear (to the French) that electrification was ultimately the way to go. And that is what happened… but that is another continent altogether.

  22. Olin Beatty says:

    If only more than 62 people could hear this!

  23. M. Smith says:

    Just for the record: (1) What is the status of three Amtrak turbo-trains that were re-furbished? (2) What became of Amtrak’s non-refurbished turbo-trains? And (3) What became of Amtrak’s turbo-train parts inventory? 25JUL.2010.

  24. patlynch says:

    Without wishing to be impolite, I think it is fair to say that the turboliner train sets are today best described as “junk.” Anybody disagree?

  25. Sorry I have a matter, These trains basically are good trains but they have hard problems with gas turbines only.
    The main problem for gas turbine using in the trains is fuel consumption and its prices.
    some times (in desert condition especially ) it has another problem that is turbine catching fire.
    We@HSTIA have 7 sets of R.T.G. trains in 100% private section in Iran. We could re power the trains with diesel engine by myself. these trains are in service with diesel engine powered them (substituted of gas turbine). Just the fuel consumption is reduced to less than 35% and reliability is much more better in comparison when the gas turbine were powered them.
    We modified A/C systems and interior fittings too.
    So I think that this train type shall re manufacture by diesel engine powered and new other modifications with the same speed and better qualities.

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