Posts Tagged ‘Acela’

The customer is always right

When it comes to trainset procurement, the US is a bureaucratic and technological basketcase. Vendors have to navigate the byzantine Buy-America and FRA rules. You can get a sense of the dysfunction in the Questions-and-Answers submitted during the early stages of the bidding process for the new Acela rolling stock.

A number of questions regard the conflicting requirements. These trains are supposed to be “proven designs” and yet be made in America. Obviously both can’t be true. One vendor asks:

As the FRA will place unique requirements on this equipment, it would be helpful to provide an understanding of how much change will be permitted to a “Service Proven” design before it is no longer considered to be the same design.

Might a syntactic change be a way to get around this conundrum?

Because of the special requirement and constraint of Amtrak operating conditions…and Tier III compliance, a lot of design changes will be necessitated from the “Service Proven” equipment. Physical appearance might be different from the existing “Service Proven “equipment. As such, the requirement of service proven or a variant thereof should be read as “developed with proven technologies”.

Tier III compliance in this case means having to design around the ridiculous FRA buff strength requirement:

Due to the (not yet fully known) impact of the (not yet published) FRA Tier III requirements…it is likely that axle loads of “proven” equipment will exceed 17 tonne. The TSI permits operation of 18 tonne axles at speeds to within less than 5 mph of the maximum specified by Amtrak; consideration should be given to allowing this slight increase in speed over the limit set by the TSI.

The FRA denied that request, as well as two other requests to reduce the buff-strength requirement.

And then there is the problem for how to compute a price:

There are components which are not available in the US at the moment. How can we state the price to be made in the US? Shall we include an investment cost, technology transfer cost including patent? This requirement does not seem realistic.

So it would appear that the FRA learned nothing from the Acela-1 fiasco. The nonsensical design requirements will scare away bidders. With fewer bidders (plus the extreme cost of a full-custom trainset), the Acela-2 trains will probably be really expensive. Hopefully, Acela-2 won’t be as unreliable.


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FRA Not Cooperating on Acela-2

When Amtrak planned the Acela back in the 1990s, one of the design goals was to use an off-the-shelf trainset. That would avoid years of debugging and extra costs involved with designing a new train. Of course, it didn’t work out that way — thanks to the FRA. The FRA created so many special rules, that Amtrak had no choice but to build a custom train.

And has the FRA learned anything from that fiasco? You would have thought so, based on the joint press conference held by the FRA, Amtrak, and the CHSRA. The key message was that this time Acela-2 would be an off-the-shelf design, and that the FRA would do everything possible to help Amtrak achieve that goal.

Unfortunately, it does not appear that FRA staffers got the memo:

FRA believes that future high-speed operations will in comparison save on bids because of the increased number of trainsets and carbuilders that will meet the final rule’s standards with little or no modification compared to the number that would have met the prior rule’s standards with little or no modification.

FRA notes that, in commenting on the economic analysis for the NPRM, which attempted to quantify the benefits of the rule changes, Amtrak stated:

The assumption that the standards simplify the design process of the equipment and would save $2,000,000 per train set is false. The Acela example indicates the exact opposite to be true. The FRA rules, as existing and proposed, eliminate the possibility of purchasing off-the-shelf equipment. The engineering work required to design new compliant equipment alone would far outstrip any possible savings from the rules if there were any to be had.

FRA believes that the former rule would not have permitted many, and perhaps might not have permitted any, carbuilders to offer off-the-shelf equipment with little or no modification that would have met the acceleration requirements on track with geometry having the maximum allowable deviations. Under the final rule it is likely that several carbuilders could provide off-the-shelf equipment that will meet acceleration requirements on minimally compliant track. This will lower costs through increased competition, and use of existing designs. Further, railroads may now be able to order equipment without tilting mechanisms and operate that equipment at high cant deficiencies, thus saving the costs of tilting mechanisms and making the number of available trainsets even greater. Based on the above, FRA does not agree with Amtrak’s comment for the purposes of this final rule. It is not unreasonable to estimate that the equipment procurement benefits alone will justify the costs of the rule. However, even if FRA eliminates from consideration equipment procurement benefits, as a result of Amtrak’s comment, FRA believes the high cant deficiency and streamlined testing requirements would justify the costs of the rule.

This is mind boggling. Despite HSR being a top priority of the President, the FRA is still creating roadblocks.  You really get the idea that FRA bureaucrats are living under a rock. The ultimate responsibility, though, is FRA Administrator Joe Szabo. I’ll have more to say about him in a follow-up posting.

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