Amtrak, Alstom share progress with eager public

HORNELL — It’s being hailed as a new chapter in local history and a monumental achievement, for a major piece of modern American infrastructure to have local blood, sweat and maybe even a few tears in its making.

An unprecedented level of investment has been made, as Alstom continues its build of 28 high-speed train sets for Amtrak’s Acela service line to carry passengers along the northeast corridor (America’s first high speed trains). The contract for trains totals $1.5 billion, and the total investment including infrastructure upgrades totals $2.5 billion.

It’s being built in the largest rolling stock facility in the world, at Alstom's Hornell plants, making it uniquely qualified in North America to take on a project of this scope, according to Hornell Site Manager Michael MacDonald.

"It's the largest rolling stock facility in America, with 700,000 square feet under roof. It's a lot of rail capacity," MacDonald said.

The new train sets will be introduced beginning in May 2021 and fully phased into the Amtrak fleet by the end of 2022, just in time for Amtrak’s 50th Anniversary. On Wednesday representatives from Amtrak and Alstom led a tour for the media of the build process for the Amtrak Acela project.

Each train will be composed of 11 cars, seven passenger cars that will hold 378 passengers, a cafe car and power car or engine.

The train’s power car’s sleek design is equally as impressive as the initial renderings, looking fast while standing still. The train’s design is the 5th generation of the French TGV trains Alstom had previously produced in Europe. Amtrak is the first customer for the 5th generation train, which offers several improvements.

"This will tilt more than the current Acela train, increasing the speed in curves, and is an articulated train, where the bogeys are between the cars, making the frame more rigid, eliminating the knife or scissor effect when going into switches, bumps and curves and improving the quality of the ride," said Alstom's Project Director for Acela, Didier Cuadrado. All that, while using 20 percent less energy than current Acela trains, which are much heavier than the new high-speed models from the 1990s.

The new trains aim not only for high speed, but high comfort for passengers as well.

New features that are sure to please Amtrak’s passengers include larger windows to take in the east coast’s picturesque vistas; dedicated USB ports and outlets for each passenger, winged head rests, expanded overhead storage, reading lights built into the seats and other amenities were incorporated following extensive surveys of customers.

"We're constantly looking for ways to improve the customer experience," said Caroline Decker, VP of the Northeast Corridor Line for Amtrak.

Those tasked with planning for the new high-speed service line have seemingly thought of everything, even implementing a strong recycling program and installing bathrooms that are 100 percent wheelchair accessible and ADA compliant.

Additionally, when the trains hit the line, passengers will have assigned seats, assuring that people traveling together will be able to sit together in most instances.

When it comes to food and drink, Amtrak will offer an in-seat cart service, or passengers can gather in the cafe car.

The project has inspired massive investment into Alstom’s Hornell facilities to accommodate the Acela project, to the tune of $65 million when all is said and done, according to the latest projections. That investment includes the building of a new 750 foot long static test building, capable of holding two completed train sets; an end of cycle building capable of housing three train sets; and the doubling in length of its test track.

Beyond the investments made locally to facilitate production, the Acela project has leveraged the updating of other infrastructure, including updates to train stations including the Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station Washington Union Station, which were funded by the same Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loan from the federal government.

Putting it all together is the job of 165 of the plant’s 800-plus employees, working in two 10-hour shifts, breaking only for overnight parts replenishment. Others are occupied with two other major projects going on at the plant, fulfilling build and refurbishment orders for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) and Maryland Transit Authority (MTA).

All of the parts are sourced from American companies with the exception of the steel car shells, which can only be made in Italy due to their size, and some elements of the brake system which are not available from an American manufacturer.

The Acela project is a hand-in-hand process between Alsom and Amtrak, with representatives communicating every day, either at the plant in Hornell or at Amtrak headquarters in Philadelphia.

“We talk every day, just to get an update of progress,” said Lawrence Biess, AVP of Mechanical for Amtrak on the project.

Amtrak and Alstom personnel looked forward to the possibility of high-speed rail expanding beyond the Northeast Corridor, but saw several funding challenges. 

"Anywhere you can take rail and electrify should be considered," Decker said.

Manufacturing remains on schedule, and the first phase of testing for trains will begin soon, promising a show for local residents, who will be among the first to see a high speed train operate in America.