Updated: October 4, 10:50 a.m. Eastern Time
By Justin Franz
The effort to replace Amtrak’s popular Acela with a new generation of high-speed trainsets has been plagued by defects and delays, according to a damning new report from the Amtrak Office of Inspector General.
In 2014, Amtrak launched a $2.3 billion effort to replace its aging fleet of high-speed trains on the Northeast Corridor. The railroad contracted with French rolling stock builder Alstom to develop and manufacture 28 new high-speed trainsets based on designs currently used in France. The new Avela Liberty was expected to enter service in 2021. However, the project is now three years behind schedule, and all of the trainsets built thus far feature defects, ranging from minor (misaligned ceiling panels in the café cars) to major (hydraulic tilting systems that leaked). Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General placed almost all of the blame on Alstom.
According to the report, which was released on Tuesday, there were two major issues with the program. The biggest problem was that Alstom had yet to produce a computer model to show how the trainset should operate. The report noted that the computer model was “the first step in a multi-step regulatory process that shows the trainset is safe to proceed with additional testing.” Without the model, the Federal Railroad Administration will not allow Alstom or Amtrak to test the train at its top speed of 160 mph. In addition, Alstom has built more than half of all of the new Acelas without a finalized design, meaning it’s possible the builder will have to go back and redo parts of trains that have already been completed.
A number of trainsets have already been built by Alstom at Hornell, N.Y., but none of them have been accepted by Amtrak, even though some have run on the Northeast Corridor. According to the Office of Inspector General, those trains are at the core of the second major problem with the program: the trains are plagued with defects. According to the report, 12 of the 28 trainsets and 22 of the 28 café cars already built all have defects.
“Some defects are safety related, such as water drainage between cars causing components that hold the cars together to corrode,” the OIG stated in a press release. “Others are described as functional. For example, the vendor previously reported that five windows on the trains shattered spontaneously and that the trainsets’ hydraulic tilting systems leaked. A final category of defects deals with aesthetic issues, such as misaligned ceiling panels in the café cars and delamination of their floors.”
As of July 2023, Amtrak has spent $1.6 billion on the project, but it has not yet officially taken delivery of a trainset. The Office of Inspector General expects the railroad to eventually go beyond its $2.3 billion budget for the project. One reason is that the railroad is now having to spend more money to keep its current fleet of Acela trains going. The current trains are now more than 20 years old and because of that, it’s getting harder to secure parts for them. Starting in November 2021, Amtrak began to harvest parts from out-of-service Acela trainsets. The Office of Inspector General states that 16 of the original 20 trainsets are now in service; the remaining four are being used as part sources.
Western New York & Pennsylvania C-425 427 and C-424 435 lead a special movement to haul an Amtrak Avelia Liberty trainset from Alstom in Hornell, N.Y., on September 9. With Amtrak running out of storage space in Philadelphia for the new trains an Alstom needing more room at Hornell for production, the trains are being temporarily stored in Olean, N.Y. Photo by Jackson Glozer.
In a statement to Railfan & Railroad, Alstom defended itself against the accusations made in the report. It noted that the new Acela trains have already racked up more than 70,000 miles of testing on the NEC and the FRA’s test track in Pueblo, Colo. It noted that it is an “industry standard” to being production of new trains while also having them certified by the FRA. It also stated it was surprised to learn that some of the trains had defects.
“We are surprised with so-called ‘defects’ that the OIG report identifies,” read Alstom’s statement. “Every train that has been released from the manufacturing site were authorized for shipping by Amtrak after thorough inspections, with identified modifications to be completed prior to acceptance. These modifications will be completed before final acceptance of the trainsets, as it is foreseen in the contract and customary in our industry. These modifications, along with additional changes that has Amtrak requested are in no way in the critical path of completion of this project.”
The full statement from Alstom can be found below.
For their part, Amtrak officials said they were excited to see the new trains in service — once it was safe to do so.
“We appreciate the OIG’s continued review of this first-of-its-kind equipment purchase. We’re excited to operate these new Alstom-built Acela trains, which will deliver a more modern and smoother service between Washington, New York and Boston. We want our customers to experience these new trains as soon as possible, but as noted in the report, Amtrak cannot operate them for passenger service until Alstom has completed testing and meets all safety requirements,” said Laura Mason, Amtrak EVP of Capital Delivery. “We’re working closely with Alstom as they complete the modeling and testing activities established during the program planning phase to satisfy the safety requirements specified by the FRA. Based on the data we’ve received from Alstom, we anticipate the initial revenue launch in 2024.”
Full statement from Alstom to Railfan & Railroad Magazine — October 3, 2023
Alstom is the world leader in high-speed trains, with over 40 years of experience designing and manufacturing this technology and nearly 2,300 high-speed trains in service built by Alstom, or built with Alstom parts and technology. We share Amtrak’s excitement in bringing this technology to America.
Alstom is working closely with the FRA and Amtrak as we work through their first-ever safety certification for high-speed trains to ensure that these new trains meet all FRA requirements for entry into service. As part of the validation, in addition to ongoing modeling activities, we have already successfully run these trains on the FRA’s Pueblo, CO test track at high-speed and on the Northeast Corridor for a total of nearly 70,000 miles.
Alstom continues to produce these, the first American, union-made, high-speed Avelia Liberty trains in Hornell, New York. It is industry standard to begin production simultaneously with validation. As we proceed through the process to have these trains validated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Alstom has shipped 9 out of 28 trains and are storing a number of them offsite to ensure a continuity of production.
We are surprised with so-called “defects” that the OIG report identifies. Every train that has been released from the manufacturing site were authorized for shipping by Amtrak after thorough inspections, with identified modifications to be completed prior to acceptance. These modifications will be completed before final acceptance of the trainsets, as it is foreseen in the contract and customary in our industry. These modifications, along with additional changes that has Amtrak requested are in no way in the critical path of completion of this project.