Amtrak is planning to replace its fleet of train cars used on 14 overnight routes, most of which travel through Chicago Union Station.
The purchase, which could be valued in the billions of dollars, would upgrade cars that in some cases have been in use for 40 years, according to the passenger rail service. It could also be one step toward improving on-time performance, though other efforts are also needed, Amtrak board Chair Anthony Coscia said.
The new rail cars, which would run on routes like the California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco and the Cardinal between New York and Chicago, are the latest plans for investment in a system that Coscia said has for years been underfunded. Efforts are already underway to modernize some shorter-distance trains in other parts of the country and roll out new locomotives, and the agency has outlined a vision for a major, decadeslong expansion of rail service, subject to funding.
“In a way it sort of is the capstone … to our effort to modernize passenger rail,” Coscia said.
Amtrak has discussed ideas for the new cars with manufacturers, but has not yet issued formal procurement requests. An exact price tag and time frame will depend on the bidding, but new trains could be delivered within five to 10 years, Coscia said. Funding for the purchase, which he described as a “major, major capital expenditure,” would come from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in 2021, he said.
This purchase will not cover local routes, like those running between Chicago and Milwaukee or downstate to Carbondale or Quincy.
The new cars and locomotives could help reduce delays on overnight trains because new equipment will operate more reliably and efficiently than old trains, Coscia said. But a key cause of delays is interference from freight trains, which often share tracks with Amtrak, and the agency is continuing to work with the freight rail companies, he said.
A report from the Federal Railroad Administration for the quarter ending June 2022 determined some of the Amtrak routes with the lowest on-time performance included overnight routes slated for train upgrades, like the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr, both of which got slightly more than 15% of customers to their destinations on time. The largest cause of delays across the system was freight train interference, which accounted for 23% of all minutes delayed, according to the report.
Chicago passenger rail advocate F.K. Plous, director of communications at a passenger rail development and finance company, said the long-distance train purchase would be a good start for the system. It signals a focus on the type of Amtrak service that has seemed, to him, to have been overlooked for years, but that many people rely on for regional transportation and that can be more readily available than planes or buses, he said.
But more work is needed to improve Amtrak service.
“We need all kinds of trains,” he said. “We need more (short-distance) trains, we need more long-distance trains. We need the old long-distance trains restored. We need the existing long-distance trains to be re-equipped with modern rolling stock, and we need to open new long-distance routes.”
Coscia said the purchase could eventually make it easier for Amtrak to meet its long-term vision for expanding rail service.
“By providing this kind of equipment to the long-distance service, we’re providing this anchor,” he said.
In the meantime, Amtrak has dedicated $28 million to refresh existing overnight rail cars until the new cars arrive.
The current cars have been modified over the years to add power outlets, entertainment systems and Wi-Fi, which hadn’t been invented when many of them were designed. Among the cars set to be replaced are sleepers, diners, lounges and coaches built in Chicago by Pullman-Standard from 1979 to 1981, and Chicago-built sleeping cars produced by Morrison-Knudsen between 1995 and 1996, according to Amtrak.
This time around, a Chicago plant could once again be in the running to build the rail cars. CRRC Sifang America, which is building new CTA rail cars at its Chicago plant, is among 10 potential bidders for the Amtrak contract.
Once delivered, the new cars are not the only upgrades Amtrak passengers in Chicago might see. The agency is seeking grants for upgrades to Union Station that include an overhaul of the concourse level and returning unused platforms to service to boost train capacity. The $418 million project could, eventually, create a path for direct service from O’Hare International Airport to McCormick Place.