This past Saturday, an Amtrak spokesman appeared before the annual meeting of TRAC, the Train Riders Association of California. He said that soon after the first of the year, Amtrak would be making an announcement about new equipment purchases that he said would be “dramatic and bold.”
Let us hope so.
Many of Amtrak’s Superliner cars, used on all of the long-distance western trains and for some of the overnight eastern trains, are now some 35 years old and in serious need of overhaul or – best case scenario – replacement.
New equipment may be needed, but is not so easy to come by. Amtrak has already put out a Request for Proposals for 50 new Viewliner sleeping cars but, last I heard, there have been no takers.
Here’s the problem: It will require a huge up-front investment for a manufacturer to gear up to build these rail cars. They'll need factory space, heavy equipment and a work force, and no one is likely to make that kind of investment for a one-time order of 40 or 50 rail cars. If they did, the per-unit cost would be prohibitive.
The solution is for Amtrak to do what the French do: commit to a standing order of 40 or 50 new rail cars every year ... year after year. This allows the manufacturer to justify the initial outlay of capital because there will be a long-term return on that investment. It also means the railroad can continuously replace old rolling stock with new equipment. And that, in turn, means lower costs for maintenance and repair. Oh, yes … and happier passengers riding in nice new coaches and sleepers.
So those of us who follow the fortunes of Amtrak are cautiously hopeful that the forthcoming announcement will be, in truth and in fact, dramatic and bold. For the hard truth is, if there isn’t some definitive plan for the systematic replacement of both Superliner and Viewliner equipment, the future of long-distance train travel – most especially on Amtrak’s western trains – will be in doubt.