When Life Hands You Lemons… Build a National Railroad
When Amtrak launched its first trains in 1971, it did not do so with shiny new coaches and state-of-the-art locomotives all branded with the company’s unique logo and colors.
Instead, the first years of the new national passenger train company required patching together a misfit collection of engines and passenger cars that were handed down from most of the 20 individual railroads that abandoned passenger service, leading to the formation of Amtrak.
That meant that for maintenance personnel every day was a constant challenge to keep equipment that was several decades old running and serviceable until Amtrak could invest in its own equipment.
“Much of what Amtrak inherited had received minimal maintenance in the previous years, not to mention the fact that different equipment meant different mechanical systems, electrical systems, air brakes, trucks, etc.,” recalls Russ Fox, a mechanic who worked on these cars during the 1970s at Mechtron Industries in Wilmington, DE, which preformed some of the early overhauls to Amtrak’s equipment. “It was a nightmare to take care of. Just getting the right parts was hard.”
Although maintenance on Amtrak’s early fleets was mostly performed by third party shops and freight railroad contractors, there was still the challenge of trying to make the trains look like they belonged to a national network.
That applied to the exteriors and interiors, whose decors still held relics of the golden age of passenger travel, including cut-glass dining car dividers and intricate design flourishes such as glazed tile designs in Southwestern motifs. Amtrak’s first interior design was ultra-contemporary, reflecting the trends of the early 1970s with bold purple and orange walls and upholstery. The exteriors, however, were painted into Amtrak’s first uniform red, white and blue livery.
Providing amenities to those interiors was also a challenge. Amtrak’s first cars all used old technology such as steam heat and huge batteries — in all different makes, models and voltages — which were charged by axle-driven generators to provide electricity and air conditioning in each car. Some dining car kitchens came equipped with cast-iron stoves that required cooks to build a fire to heat food and water for meal preparation.
It would be four years after its founding before Amtrak could invest in its first new cars. By 1975, Amtrak had ordered hundreds of new modern Amfleet and Superliner cars to operate across the system, replacing older inherited equipment. Three years later, Amtrak began converting older steam heated cars to reliable electric head-end power, which meant mechanics could get rid of the heavy — and inefficient — batteries under each coach.
Amtrak would continue to invest in new cars and new technology, demonstrating its commitment to safe, sustainable and reliable passenger rail travel that would carry America into the 21st century. This included the purchase of new General Electric Genesis P40 engines in 1993 that were designed using Amtrak’s own industrial engineers’ specs for greater fuel efficiency, safety and aesthetics. And as Amtrak celebrates its 50th Anniversary, it is preparing to launch its newest and most modern high-speed, all-electric fleet: the new Acela.
Amtrak salutes all the personnel who have kept our trains running, from those earliest steam-era cars to our latest and greatest Acela trains. Their commitment to working through challenging times and circumstances is further evidence that Amtrak has been, and continues to be, a leader in U.S. passenger rail travel.
Equipment Milestones in Amtrak’s History
1973: Amtrak orders new locomotives, including SDP-40F diesels and E60 electric locomotives.
1973: Amtrak orders the first 57 of nearly 500 Amfleet cars from the Budd Company.
1974: Amtrak orders 11 train sets with turbine-powered cars of French design.
1975: Amtrak makes a $313 million investment in 235 state-of-the-art bi-level Pullman-Standard Company Superliner cars for long distance trains. The order included coaches, sleeping, dining, café/lounge cars.
1975: With the purchase of the Beech Grove, IN, heavy maintenance facility from Penn Central, Amtrak brings heavy overhauls of its equipment in-house.
1976: 30 new F40PH locomotives are put into service.
1978: Amtrak begins to convert older locomotives from steam heat to reliable, electric head-end power.
1980: Locomotive No. 901 from Washington, DC, to New York becomes the first electric AEM-7 to enter revenue service.
1980: Amtrak orders 150 new cars (125 long distance coaches and 25 food service cars), known as Amfleet II, from the Budd Company.
1981: The Amtrak fleet includes 1,436 new or rebuilt all-electric passenger cars and a fuel-efficient locomotive fleet, with an average age of four years. Conversion to an all-electric fleet reduces equipment malfunctions and resulting delays by 31 percent.
1986: Amtrak begins modifying electrical equipment on Amfleet cars so that trains can operate in "push-pull" service for increased fuel efficiency and improved operational safety.
1986: Amtrak completes its first Viewliner prototype. These cars measure 85 feet long and 14 feet high and offer wide views of the passing landscape through two rows of windows.
1990: Amtrak accepts delivery of 58 Horizon cars.
1992: Amtrak takes delivery of 20 new P32-8BWH diesel locomotives with first-generation GE-built engines.
1993: Amtrak places order for 50 Viewliner sleeping cars.
1993: Amtrak receives delivery of 22 P40 Genesis locomotives designed specifically for passenger rail service by focusing more on speed than tonnage.
1997: Amtrak takes delivery of 111 new P42 diesel locomotives. These lighter and more aerodynamic engines provide improved fuel efficiency while also generating more horsepower than earlier models.
2000: With electrification complete, Acela Regional No. 131 runs from Boston to Washington, DC, marking the first entire electrified run on the busy Northeast Corridor.
2000: Late in the year, the first Acela Express trainset enters revenue service between Washington, DC, and Boston, ushering in a new age of high-speed rail for America.
2014: Locomotive No. 600 becomes the first electric Amtrak Cities Sprinter (ACS-64) to enter revenue service, leading Northeast Regional train No. 171 from Boston to Washington.
2016: Amtrak announces a contract with Alstom to produce 28 next-generation high-speed trainsets that will replace the equipment used to provide Amtrak’s premium Acela Express service.
2017: New Siemens Charger (SC-44) diesel locomotives capable of speeds up to 125 mph are introduced on state-supported routes in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Purchased by a consortium of states, the units are maintained by Amtrak.
2018: Amtrak awards an $850 million contract to Siemens Mobility for 75 new Tier 4 (ALC-42) passenger diesel locomotives and associated services. The units offer the latest safety systems and are capable of speeds up to 125 mph.
2019: Amtrak seeks proposals for a new fleet of single-level passenger rail vehicles to replace Amfleet I cars, providing new equipment with contemporary amenities to better serve customers.
Coming Soon: Amtrak launches it new Acela high-speed trainsets to replace the equipment used to provide Amtrak’s premium Acela service.
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