June 20, 2024

Rail investment takes shape

Roger Williams, Chairman of the International Rail Catering Group, looks at America’s investment in a new era of sustainable long-distance rail travel…

The federal infrastructure bill passed in 2021 is bringing major investment to the US rail network. Amtrak is set to receive a total $66 billion, with $44 billion of that going to the Federal Railway Administration and $22 billion to improvement projects and fleet acquisitions.

Improvements to the customer experience are certain, along with new efficiencies in speed, comfort, accessibility and sustainability.

Land of opportunity

Amtrak is purchasing new long-distance and overnight trains for the iconic services which operate coast to coast and link major regions – trains such as the California Zephyr (Chicago – Emeryville), Southwest Chief (Chicago – Los Angeles), Coast Starlight (Los Angeles – Seattle) and Empire Builder (Chicago – Portland/Seattle).

Some of these services’ 800-plus rail cars are now over 40 years old, with the oldest in service since 1979. Ten manufacturers have submitted proposals to replace them and Amtrak’s Chairman of the Board, Anthony Coscia, has said: “We are looking for new trains that improve safety, reliability, accessibility and efficiency while offering the features important to completely modernise train travel for the 21st century.”

As part of this effort, Amtrak is researching design elements and customer amenities to “evolve overnight and cross-country train travel in the coming decades”.

Coscia added: “We believe in the future of our long-distance service, and we look forward to enhancing the customer experience across the Amtrak network, and further supporting US manufacturing.” More than 70 suppliers in 23 states will benefit from the investments.

Acela trains

New Acela trains, built by Alstom, are already being tested with their service introduction planned for later this year. Each will carry up to 378 passengers, compared to 304 on the existing legacy fleet. Besides being 24% bigger, Amtrak says these new trains are faster. The Acela trains operate over the Northeast Corridor (NEC), the 457-mile route between Boston and Washington DC. This important business route also connects Philadelphia and New York City. 

Trains complete the entire journey in around six-and-a-half hours, making it the US rail operation’s most comparable to an intercity service in Europe.

The NEC is an economic engine, estimated to carry a workforce contributing $50 billion a year to America’s Gross Domestic Product. Nearly one-third of the region’s jobs are located within five miles of NEC stations. 

The region is also home to nearly a quarter of the country’s top universities and a fifth of Fortune 500 company HQs.

Onboard comfort

The new Acela design includes shared wheelsets between cars so the ride is stiffer and smoother for passengers. A single-level walk between adjacent cars and extra grab bars also make it easier to walk through the train.

The seats are more spacious and feature a winged headrest to aid rest and relaxation. Each has its own power outlet, USB port and reading light and tables are now individualised. That means instead of having to negotiate with their neighbour about when to flip the table up, everybody has their own.

Add in larger, more spacious restrooms with contactless features and automatic door access for improved customer hygiene and safety, plus a lounge area for relaxing, and these trains are taking customer comfort to a new level, regardless of the class of travel. Additional features include real-time information about the train location, train speed and conductor announcements. There’s a contactless storage option for luggage. Café Car enhancements include convenient self-service options and accessibility features for people with disabilities.

Getting greener

Passengers will also welcome news that their environmentally friendly ride just got greener. “Rail today is the greenest way to travel,” Laura Mason, Amtrak’s Executive Vice President of Capital Delivery, told CBS Philadelphia. 

“There is an 83% reduction in greenhouse gases compared to driving, 73% less compared to flying when you’re talking about the Northeast Corridor. These train sets, as a fleet basis, are 20% more energy efficient. And, on a per-passenger basis, it’s 40% more efficient. The greenest way to travel is getting greener.”

Seating made out of recycled leather, a robust recycling programme and new sustainable food and beverage offerings onboard further support this improved environmental approach.

Amtrak’s new Acela fleet will be America’s most environmentally sustainable fleet of trains to date. That helps set the standard for future long-distance train designs.

For rail customer service advice and research contact roger@thecateringexplorer.com