Something momentous may be about to happen in United States passenger rail: Amtrak is going to gain electrified trackage. If recently-released proposals for $424M worth of passenger rail improvements in Indiana and Illinois are realized, regional and long-distance Amtrak services between Chicago and Northwestern Indiana will shift their route from the Norfolk Southern’s congested Chicago Line to the electrified, passenger-only South Shore Line and Metra Electric District. If Amtrak trains do wind up using the route, the 84km (52mi) from Chicago to Michigan City, IN will be the first addition of electrified track to the Amtrak network since 2000, when Amtrak electrified the 155mi stretch of the Northeast Corridor from New Haven to Boston in preparation for Acela service. (The Keystone Line to Harrisburg was re-electrified in 2006 after its infrastructure fell into disuse, but because the infrastructure remained in place, I’m not counting that here).
At the same time, Amtrak is planning another major shakeup for trains on the East Coast, which will see the iconic, but very aged, Amfleet cars replaced with dual-mode trainsets capable of running off of overhead wires or a diesel engine. Dual-mode trainsets do not expand electrification themselves but, as will be discussed later in this post, can help facilitate extensions of electrification from main lines to their branches.
That Amtrak’s proposed route move is their first gain of electrified trackage in 20 years shows how rare large-scale rail electrification projects have become in the United States. Since the aforementioned Amtrak project in 2000, only 53 miles of new electrification have been added to main line rail tracks in the United States for Denver’s commuter rail system; another 51 miles are currently being added as part of Caltrain’s Modernization Program. Electric traction is, by far, a superior way to power trains than diesel locomotives, and if we want U.S. passenger rail to be better—which, for the sake of both the climate and social equity, it must be—we need to electrify more of our railroads. Likely as a product of post-electrification service improvements, electrifying rail lines has been shown to increase positive public perception of rail travel and, as a result, rail ridership.
Neither the proposed route shift in Northwestern Indiana nor the Amfleet replacement is a large-scale electrification project. But both absolutely can and should serve as a springboard to the wider expansion of electric traction in U.S. passenger rail, beginning with the electrification of lines owned by Amtrak or state governments (as opposed to freight-hauling Class I railroads). There are three strong candidates for immediate electrification: the Chicago–Detroit Michigan Line, the New Haven–Springfield Line, and the Washington, D.C.–Richmond, VA RF&P Subdivision. Alongside already-planned rolling stock and route upgrades, these three electrification projects should kickstart a wave of further electrification, and improved passenger rail, around the country.
Expanding Electrification From The Midwest
The Chicago Access/Michigan East Program proposes to shift Amtrak service from freight railroad lines to tracks which will only be shared with other passenger rail service. For the most part, this is a hugely positive change that will hopefully reduce the unreliability that plagues Chicago-area Amtrak services and facilitate higher frequency of intercity trains from the Chicago hub.
One potential downside of the proposal is the possibility that regional and intercity trains get in each other’s way. Intercity trains could be delayed by regional trains’ more frequent stops, and the frequency of regional trains could be hampered by slower intercity trains. Running Amtrak trains under electric power is one effective way to mitigate this issue. Electric trains can accelerate faster, ensuring that Amtrak travel times are not lengthened by the move to the South Shore Line, which is longer and curvier than today’s Chicago Line route, and additionally preventing delays to regional trains at station stops. Another potential conflict point is the approach to Chicago Union Station, where a new ramp will be constructed to connect the station to the Metra Electric lines via the existing St. Charles Air Line. Amtrak’s grant application for the Chicago Access program also suggests that this new connection could host a shuttle service between O’Hare Airport and McCormick Place, through Union Station. It is crucial that this service, as well as Amtrak’s services, be electrically-powered. As electric trains have better acceleration and gradient performance than diesels, a ramp built with electric trains in mind can be shorter than it would need to be for diesels, minimizing construction costs. Lastly—but very importantly—more diesel trains mean more air pollution in the center of Chicago and in Union Station itself, which already has issues with poor air quality.
An Amtrak electric district in Indiana and Illinois should quickly be expanded. The best candidate for immediate electrification is the Amtrak-owned Michigan Line, which connects Northwestern Indiana with Kalamazoo and Detroit. Parts of the Michigan Line are already set up for 110mph running; higher-performance electric trains would better take advantage of higher-speed track, and shorten travel times between two of the Midwest’s largest metropolitan areas. With the new route from Indiana to Chicago already electrified, Amtrak could quickly run large sections of their Michigan services under electric power. Amtrak owns the Michigan Line as far as Kalamazoo, as they do the Northeast Corridor, so electrification work would not be subject to the hostility it receives North America’s freight railroads. (Between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, outside Detroit, the line is owned by the State of Michigan but maintained by Amtrak).
If Amtrak can replicate the practices it used in the New Haven–Boston project, they might be able to keep construction costs close to that project’s not-unreasonable $3M per kilometer. At this cost, electrifying the 230km (143mi) Michigan Line from Chicago to Detroit would cost $690M. (The other suggested electrification projects in this post will also assume this cost). It should go without saying that this investment should be accompanied by improvements in service in order to be worthwhile. Chicago to Detroit services should probably be running about every 2 hours at least, and sections of the line should see more frequent service, such as Ann Arbor to Detroit if the long-proposed regional rail service ever gets running.
Some of Amtrak’s new intercity trainsets (to be discussed in more detail below) will be dual-mode. There are no plans currently to send dual-mode equipment to the Midwest—this should change, and Amtrak should swap some of their Chicago-based diesel locomotives for dual-mode or electric types. The exact details of the new Siemens dual-mode trainsets are not yet fully known, but based on renderings (and speculation) it seems that it should be feasible to swap the new dual-mode locomotive variant on to the Midwest trainsets. (This would allow existing diesel locomotives to be released to increase service in unnelectrified territory, or to start new services entirely).
A Brief Note On Voltage
The South Shore Line is electrified at 1500V DC, a standard not used almost anywhere for new electrification of mainline rail. A conversion of the route to the modern 25kV/60Hz AC standard should be on Amtrak’s and Metra’s radar for medium-term investment. Use of 1500V DC for intercity mainline rail is not unheard of—it is widespread particularly on France’s legacy routes south of Paris—so the upgrade may not need to be made immediately, depending on the capabilities of Amtrak’s new rolling stock, but should be made soon. (Of course, if electrification is expanded to currently-unnelectrified tracks on the South Shore and Metra Electric route, or to Union Station, those expansions should use equipment that can handle 25kV power in anticipation of a change in voltage).
Addendum on rolling stock and voltages, lifted from this Twitter thread: Rolling stock for South Shore line running would need to run off 1500V DC. In the interim, DC capability should be added to Amtrak’s APV power cars so they can run immediately off of the South Shore power supply. This seems easier for a few reasons than trying to force AC conversion of South Shore before the opening of Chicago Access. But part of any long-term plan should involve conversion to 25 kV AC everywhere, including South Shore and Metra Electric.
Expanding Electrification From The Northeast Corridor
Amtrak’s new intercity trainsets for the Northeast Corridor (NEC) will employ dual-mode locomotives capable of running off of a diesel engine or overhead electric wire (or a battery, on a handful of sets for New York services). The use of dual-mode trains eliminates the time-consuming engine change for trains which run through from the electrified NEC to unnelectrified lines further south and west.
Dual-mode trains are not perfect or an ideal solution—as has been discussed in great length and detail on Transit Twitter. However, the use of dual-mode trainsets for intercity and medium-distance trains does have the advantage of flexibility as electrification advances. Because they can switch between electric and diesel power on the fly, they can take advantage of electrification as it is extended incrementally, without requiring engine change points and electric maintenance facilities to be moved. We should take advantage of this dual-mode flexibility not as an excuse to forego further electrification—as I fear may be the plan—but to begin incremental expansions of electrification outwards from existing electrified territory in the Northeast.
There are a couple of candidates for immediate electrification extending from the Northeast Corridor. The first is the New Haven–Springfield Line, which branches from the NEC mainline at New Haven, CT, and runs via Hartford to Springfield, MA. Recent investments have led to an hourly-ish service on the line between Hartford and New Haven, and the whole line has seen upgrades to track and stations. The logical next step is electrification. The line is relatively short, at 62km (100mi), and with several new stations either under construction or proposed, its frequent stops make the route particularly well-suited to electrification. At $186M, electrification would cost significantly less than the total investment so far in improvements to the New Haven–Springfield Line ($769M). The benefits of switching from diesel to electric trains can be found very locally; the other intra-Connecticut regional rail service, Shore Line East, recently replaced their aging diesel trains with EMUs, and are adjusting their schedules to account for EMUs’ superior performance.
The second is the 197km (123mi) extension of the Northeast Corridor from Washington, DC, via CSX’s RF&P Subdivision, to Richmond, VA. Since the 2000s, Amtrak has been incrementally improving service in Virginia, expanding their network and adding new services, but truly frequent service has been held back by the capacity constraints caused by sharing tracks with freight rail, particularly on the 2-track Long Bridge between DC and Alexandria. These issues are currently being addressed through a $1.9B upgrade program led by the State of Virginia, which will also be purchasing the parts of the right-of-way between DC and Richmond from CSX.
Electrification between DC and Richmond, which should cost $591M, would not only benefit intercity and long-distance Amtrak trains. It would also be a major upgrade for regional rail services between DC and the Northern Virginia suburbs, currently provided by Virginia Railway Express (VRE). In addition to the built-in benefits of electrification, having VRE services under electric power would remove a major obstacle to regional rail services in Virginia and Maryland running through DC—something Maryland’s government is interested in doing, but which absolutely should not involve them continuing to run diesel trains on the electrified NEC.
Conclusion: A “Rolling Program” of Electrification
At a cost of $3M per kilometer—the cost of Amtrak’s most recent electrification project—this initial program of expanded Amtrak electrification could be completed for $1.9B, and would add 434mi of electrified track to the national network. This is roughly equivalent to the entire Northeast Corridor (464mi), effectively doubling Amtrak’s electrified trackage.
I suggest the three lines above for electrification not because they are the only lines in the country deserving of electrification—far from it—but because by using Amtrak- or state-owned track, they are the simplest projects to achieve, and importantly, because they provide a solid foundation upon which to further expand electrification. For example, electrifying the RF&P may alleviate current skepticism towards electrification among planners of the S-Line—and in turn might make attractive further electrification of the North Carolina Rail Road line to Charlotte. Electrification around Chicago may encourage Metra to finally electrify their large suburban network, the busiest outside of the New York area.
In the United Kingdom, advocates and politicians have called for the establishment of a “rolling program(me) of electrification,” in other words, a continuous flow of new electrification projects around the country, delivered as part of a long-term strategy. That is precisely what we need in the United States. Establishing domestic expertise on electrification and a supply chain for components help reduce procurement costs and avoid repeating past mistakes in new projects (which will stave off the cost overruns that too often plague our infrastructure projects). If the country can become good at delivering electrification projects, it is easier to make the case for funding new electrification projects to governments at all levels—and we end up with valuable momentum to continue increasing the size of the electrified network. The reduced costs that a rolling plan can provide will also help to make electrification more attractive to transit operators that would benefit, and have expressed interest, like the MBTA.
This is also a good time to think about expanded electrification because, if a few rolling stock stars align in the coming years, there may be surplus electric equipment around to provide service on newly-electrified lines without the full cost of new rolling stock. Amtrak’s existing electric locomotives, the 2010s-built ACS-64s, have years of life left in them but many are about to be made redundant by the new intercity trainsets. New Jersey Transit (NJT) has ordered new Multilevel EMUs to replace the aging Arrow cars, and their contract with Alstom includes options for over 800 additional cars on top of the current order of 138. If the new EMUs prove a success, NJT could theoretically opt to order more cars and sideline some of their ALP-46 electric locomotives—which, at 20 years old, also have more life left. Any surplus electric equipment should be used to replace diesel locomotives on suburban or intercity rail networks—which means now is the time to strategically expand electrification.
Right now, the United States is missing a long-term vision and strategy for rail electrification. Even as recent infrastructure funding has inspired visions of expanded passenger rail, additional electrification—and by extension, faster, more reliable, and less polluting trains—has been left off the table. Amtrak should begin working to electrify the track it owns, lobbying state governments to fund electrification of their tracks, and take advantage of the (unfortunately all-too-rare) rail-funding-friendly federal administration to get the ball rolling on large-scale electrification.