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by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
High-speed rail means different things to different people. To some, it's a train whizzing on dedicated tracks at 220 mph. To others, it's a train cruising along existing rail lines between 90 mph and 110 mph.
In the United States, the latter is the more practical version, at least at this point. California is the only state actively pursuing federal funding for a so-called "bullet train" system that would reach speeds up to 220 mph; Florida was prepared to launch construction on a Tampa-Orlando line that would top out at 180 mph, but in February, Gov. Rick Scott rejected federal funds for the line, effectively cancelling the project for the time being.
However, a slew of states are proposing to operate higher-speed intercity passenger-rail service on dozens of corridors throughout the country. Transit agencies, too, are hoping to operate faster commuter-rail trains on lines that are equipped to handle higher speeds.
"Who knows when the first very high-speed rail system will be here," says Janis Vitins, director of marketing and product planning for Bombardier Transportation's Locomotive Division. "But the incremental high speed, up to 125 mph, that's in front of us right now."
Passenger-rail rolling stock manufacturers offer different products capable of operating at high speeds: locomotives that haul passenger coaches at a faster pace, and electric multiple units, which feature power units within individual passenger cars. Higher-speed trains (as in, those operating between 90 mph and 125 mph) traditionally run with locomotives and passenger coaches, says Vitins.
To that end, suppliers such as Bombardier and Siemens are working to develop locomotive platforms for U.S. passenger-rail operators in an effort to standardize products so they can provide more reliable locomotives at lower prices. Bombardier and Siemens officials expect more states and transit agencies will purchase the higher-speed locomotives. With a renewed interest in passenger rail, odds are good that even if a state isn't operating higher-speed service now, it will be before the newest generation of locomotives are retired, they figure.
"If you put something on the track today, that product lives 30 years, maybe 40," says Vitins. "If you put something on the track and don't look at future development of the rail transportation system, it could be obsolete in five or 10 years."
Bombardier has developed a high-speed locomotive product line for North American passenger-rail systems designed to accommodate states' needs during the next several decades: the ALP locomotives. Introduced in the early 2000s, the ALP electric locomotive is in operation at New Jersey Transit.
The agency initially purchased 26 units, which reach a maximum speed of 100 mph. Those were delivered in 2002. In 2008, NJ Transit ordered another 26 locomotives and asked Bombardier to upgrade the units to reach speeds of 125 mph. The agency later ordered nine more.
"We had to do very little to get it up to 125 mph because the initial ALP-46 was actually a locomotive designed for 125, but the gear box was designed for 100," says Vitins, adding that the ALP locomotives are based on a unit originally developed for the German market that reaches speeds of 140 mph.
Bombardier since has developed the ALP-45DP, a dual-power locomotive designed to operate on systems that are partially electrified and need to transfer to diesel power on non-electrified track. In 2008, NJ Transit ordered 26 ALP-45DPs and Montreal's Agence métropolitaine de transport ordered 20. Bombardier is in the process of developing a diesel-powered ALP locomotive, says Vitins.
Siemens is working to develop a locomotive platform that meets U.S. operating requirements, too. Since the 1990s, the firm has supplied high-speed electric and diesel-electric locomotives to about 20 countries, including Germany, Austria, Norway, China, France, Spain, Russia and India, says Dave Ward, Siemens' locomotive product director for the United States and Canada. The units can reach speeds up to 140 mph.
Siemens' latest European locomotive platform is the Vectron. Unveiled in June 2010, the units can be used for national and cross-border passenger and freight operations, reaching speeds between 100 mph and 125 mph.
In October 2010, Siemens obtained a contract to supply higher-speed locomotives in North America. The supplier inked a six-year, $466 million deal with Amtrak to supply 70 Amtrak City Sprinter (or ACS-64) locomotives. The units will operate on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston up to 125 mph, and on the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pa., up to 110 mph.
The locomotives, which will replace a fleet of units that are 30 years old, are scheduled to be delivered beginning in February 2013, says Ward. The units will feature regenerative braking systems that put up to 100 percent of the energy generated during braking back into the power system, adds Michael Latour, director of locomotive sales and projects. The locomotives also will feature crash energy management components like anti-climbing technology and push-back couplers designed to keep the train upright and on tracks in case of a collision.
"These locomotives will provide a whole new level of service to Amtrak," says Armin Kick, Siemens' director of high-speed rail development.
Siemens officials are positioning the company to be at the ready when states begin issuing requests for proposals for locomotives as they seek to improve and expand intercity passenger-rail service offerings. The firm has a manufacturing facility in Sacramento, Calif., that employs 810 workers; Siemens plans to hire more employees to work on the Amtrak locomotive order, says Kick. In early 2010, the company purchased 20 acres adjacent to the facility so it can expand the plant in anticipation of more high-speed passenger-rail equipment orders.
But in order for locomotive manufacturers to continue investing in plant expansions and new technology, they will need assurances that locomotive orders will pick up. And it'll help if they can build a standard piece of equipment that can easily be adapted for all customers.
That's why the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 mandated that Amtrak establish the Next Generation Corridor Equipment Pool Committee to design, develop standards for and procure standardized next-generation corridor equipment. Comprising representatives from Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, freight railroads, passenger-rail equipment manufacturers, states and transit agencies, the committee last month approved new specifications for diesel-electric locomotives.
"This specification was designed to develop a locomotive that meets Tier 4 emission standards and can go 125 mph," says Steve Fretwell, locomotive technology branch chief for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the next-gen equipment committee's team leader for locomotive specs. "It was designed so that any state or commuter-rail agency that wants a locomotive, there's already a specification written that meets everybody's needs."
In turn, states and transit agencies can get better-priced equipment. They also can pool equipment orders, which will provide manufacturers a more steady stream of business.
"There's been a real emphasis on trying to get away from this boom/bust cycle that the intercity programs and transit agencies tend to go through," says Bill Bronte, committee chairman and chief of Caltrans' rail division. "You'll have an influx of money and people ramp up, and then the money dries out and you have a variety of one-off types of equipment. We're trying to develop an ongoing supply chain that will survive over time."
As a result, states and transit agencies hope manufacturers will open or expand plants in the United States. In recent years, many car and locomotive suppliers have shuttered plants in the United States because of low demand.
"It's very difficult to ask your shareholders to invest money if you know your production line might only be up for two years," says Bronte.
Bombardier and Siemens both had representatives that participated in the development of the diesel-electric locomotive standards, as well as specifications for passenger-rail cars that were developed last year. They say the specs are a win-win for rolling stock manufacturers and their customers.
"You don't go to Ford and have them custom-build a vehicle for you; you buy what they have," says Bombardier's Vitins. "This mentality of, 'I'll go to the marketplace and buy exactly what I want to have,' that will kill you. You might get the product, but what about the life support costs over 30 years?"