People are seen near the Amtrak train at Penn Station in New York… (Spencer Platt, Getty Images )
Amtrak will pay $466 million this year for 70 new locomotives to enhance the speed and reliability of rail service in the Northeast Corridor and invest $298 million on 130 new rail cars to serve the East Coast and Midwest.
The new equipment will be a major upgrade for a system that now operates with locomotives that are 20 to 30 years old and some sleeper cars that are 60 years old, Amtrak President Joe Boardman said in announcing the federally subsidized passenger rail line's plans for 2012.
Though the new locomotives will be somewhat faster and the new cars will be able to travel at higher speeds, Boardman said the more significant improvement would come in reliability.
After carrying a record 30.2 million passengers in 2011, Boardman said, Amtrak would continue upgrades to its 30-year-old reservation system and make improvements in New Jersey that will allow trains to reach speeds of 160 mph there.
That $450 million project and a $72 million investment to replace track in four tunnels under the East River into New York were described as initial steps toward building a high-speed rail system in the United States.
"We've got to go faster, we've got to be more reliable, we've got to be more on time," Boardman said, "and we've got to coordinate all of that together in an investment in infrastructure for the Northeast Corridor for the benefit of regional commuter and high-speed services."
The Obama administration's ambitious proposal to build a national network of high-speed rail service has been caught in the maw of Congress amid budget-cutting and the aversion of some Republicans to the $1.5 billion annual Amtrak subsidy.
House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica takes delight in referring to Amtrak as the "Soviet-style" rail service.
He has advocated splitting a proposed $117 billion high-speed rail system for the Northeast away from Amtrak in favor of an un-subsidized corporation.
Unions and other Amtrak advocates have said that would rob the rail company of its only profitable route and leave it saddled with money-losing lines that span the rest of the country. The House has proposed reductions in Amtrak's subsidy.
"While some of our detractors expect us to fold our tent, we're not going to do that," Boardman said. "Uncertainty in federal funding and budget cuts are not new to Amtrak. Things are different now because of the financial difficulties and the pressures that are on absolutely everybody, from Amtrak all the way through every program. "
Purchase of the locomotives will be funded through a loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. The rail cars — 25 sleepers, 25 diners, 55 baggage cars, and 25 cars that double as baggage and dormitory cars for train crew — will be paid for through Amtrak's capital budget. All will be built in the U.S.
The first units will arrive next year, Boardman said.