Flush with infrastructure funding, Amtrak readies new trains

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On the Northeast Corridor, leisure demand has exceeded 2019 levels, while business demand is growing but not yet at pre-pandemic levels.
On the Northeast Corridor, leisure demand has exceeded 2019 levels, while business demand is growing but not yet at pre-pandemic levels. Photo Credit: BrandonKleinPhoto/Shutterstock.com

Amtrak directly was awarded $22 billion in the 2021 $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and will take a share of another $44 billion to be divvied up by the Federal Railroad Administration. Two new types of trains -- Acela and the newly announced Airo, set to debut in 2026 -- are on the way to enhance the national rail provider's customer experience, particularly for business travelers. Jina Sanone, vice president of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Service Line, spoke with BTN senior editor Donna M. Airoldi recently about these changes. Edited excerpts follow.

BTN: Are the new Acela trains part of the $22 billion infrastructure money or were they already on the way?

Jina Sanone: Those were already in the works, and many already have been manufactured, so that was well on its way. But the funding does help the new Airo trains, and some of the money that goes through the FRA will end up with Amtrak and many of our state partners.

BTN: What will be some of the improvements to the business-class cars?

Sanone: The majority of the train is business class. It's a nine-car train set: one first-class car, one cafe car, seven business-class cars, so we will have more business-class seats. The seats are very comfortable, they'll have individual power. Today there is an outlet for every customer, but they will be easier to get to on the new trains. They also will be modern with digital displays, the cafe cars will offer self-service, a more customer-friendly option. Those are a few things in the works.

BTN: How many more seats?

Sanone: About 30% more.

BTN: How will the trains be more sustainable?

Sanone: The new Acela trains will be even more efficient and more sustainable. Train travel by its nature is sustainable across our country and around the world. The new Acelas and everything on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) operate on electric power, which makes them very sustainable. And the new Acela's are light, so it will take less electricity to power those.

BTN: When are they due to be put into service?

Sanone: We are going through testing right now. Many of them have already been made. We don't have a firm date, but we are looking toward May 2023. 

BTN: Another new train announced in December is the Airo. How will these cars be an improvement over current ones, particularly for business travelers?

Sanone: The new Airo trains represent the future of Amtrak and will be available across the country. Many will be operating in the NEC and on the corridors around that. The Keystone trains, the Empire service, service into Virginia, those are all very popular routes with business travelers on top of the NEC.

These trains are an elevated experience. One of the really exciting things is the windows are very large, panoramic. Even though these trains are not built yet, I had a chance to evaluate the seats that we were choosing. They are incredibly comfortable. They will have wrap-around head rests. Tray tables are larger and sturdier. One of the things I love is there is a cupholder you can utilize with the tray down or up. There are individual power and USB ports. The restrooms are touchless. You can enter and use everything in there without touching anything. 

A great advantage of these trains is there is one-by-two seating in business class. That's an improvement compared to what we have today on our regional trains that operate in the NEC. Most of those are two-by-two in business class. This business class will be like the Acela trains today that have that in first class. It will be in all the business-class cars for Airo trains. 

Another point that will make the service better for those traveling between Virginia and the corridor is that the Airo will have the capability to move seamlessly between the two because everything on the corridor is electrified. Today, for the trains that operate on the corridor and off, they have to switch locomotives in Washington Union Station. The new train sets won't have to do that anymore. Customers will have faster trip times. 

BTN: How many of each new type of train are you expecting?

Sanone: Twenty-eight new Acelas, and the Airo is to be determined. We've ordered 73, but have options to take more of them.

A great advantage of Airo trains is there is one-by-two seating in business class. This business class will be like the Acela trains today that have that in first class. It will be in all the business-class cars for Airo trains.

BTN: What additional investments is Amtrak making to make the Northeast Corridor more efficient with its new funding?

Sanone: There are many [including] repair work and refurbishments. There are some major projects like replacing the B&O tunnel outside of Baltimore. There is other bridge and tunnel work that will happen, infrastructure work with the tracks, and the Gateway project in New York, which is the 10 miles of track between Newark and New York. There is a whole catalog of infrastructure work and repairs that will take place with that funding. [Of the $22 billion allocated to Amtrak, $12 billion will go toward NEC repair, according to Amtrak.]

BTN: What are your ridership numbers on the Northeast Corridor in terms of recovery to 2019 levels?

Sanone: We are seeing strong demand for ridership. Leisure demand has rebounded quickly and has exceeded the 2019 levels. And business demand is growing, but it's not yet at the levels we saw before the pandemic. Every month it's a little stronger. 

BTN: How far along is it?

Sanone: It's getting close to about two-thirds, but it's changing month by month.

BTN: Which segments have shown the most improvement?

Sanone: It's pretty even. Our business demand is so concentrated on the corridor. The north end between Boston and New York and the south end between Washington and New York, the business travel on those has rebounded similarly. We know the pandemic has changed the way people work and where they live and where they work, and we are constantly looking at those changes so we can adapt and meet the customers' needs.

BTN: How is the Amtrak Corporate Incentive Program doing? How has interest in it been since Covid?

Sanone: We have great group of customers that we work with and have relationships with that use [that program]. They valued it before and value it now. Individual employees of these companies might feel it's safer traveling on the train, and we've seen some positive shifts with specific companies.

BTN: Any planned changes to that program?

Sanone: We are always looking at enhancements, but there are no major changes to the program. It's working well for us, and I think it works well for our customers. 

[I want to add] that the New Acela trains will be even more efficient, as will the Airo trains. Our corporate customers value that a lot. It's an important part of their partnership with Amtrak because we help them meet their corporate overall sustainability goals. Amtrak helps them deliver on that. Taking the train on the NEC is up to 83% more efficient than driving and up to 73% more efficient than flying from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint.

Source: Business Travel News

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