INTRO: This spring will see the completion of a lightweight Non-Electric Locomotive being developed jointly by the US Federal Railroad Administration and Bombardier Transportation. Powered by a 5000hp gas turbine, the 240 km/h NEL is expected to spearhead an incremental approach to the development of high-speed inter-city services on non-electrified corridors

BYLINE: Jeanine Ipsen

Manager, Government RelationsBombardier Transit Corp

HIGH-SPEED RAIL is coming to America! This year will see the start of 240 km/h operation with Amtrak’s electric Acela Express. It will also see the launch of a prototype locomotive which offers the potential to run high-speed trains on non-electrified corridors.The FRA/Bombardier Non-Electric Locomotive is expected to start a demonstration tour around the country before the end of this year.

High-speed rail development in the USA has been hampered by historical and geographical factors. Most of the rail network is owned by private freight railroads, which opted out of the passenger business almost 30 years ago. Other than Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and one or two isolated segments, passenger services must rely on access rights.

With the owner railroads setting the agenda for infrastructure investment, we have seen the network optimised for heavy freight trains. Superelevation in curves has been reduced, former double-track routes singled, and maximum speeds have been held below 127 km/h to avoid the need for mandatory cab signalling.

These factors led most proponents of high-speed passenger services to advocate the construction of dedicated passenger lines. But projects such as the Texas TGV and Florida Overland eXpress found that they did not have the political support needed to fund the capital cost of dedicated passenger rail corridors.

By contrast, on Amtrak’s wholly-owned NEC it was possible to adopt an incremental approach, moving from 160 to 177, 200 and now 240 km/h. Increasingly it is being recognised that an incremental approach is the most practical and cost-effective way to improve passenger services in other parts of the USA. Local schemes such as Washington state’s Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor and the new Midwest Regional Rail Initiative are bringing together Amtrak, state governments and the freight railroads to break the logjam.

Using existing rights-of-way offers an economical approach, but raises many questions. It is essential to reach agreement on technical parameters with the owner railroads. For example, if increasing superelevation is not acceptable, this may require costly works to straighten out the worst curves - posing cost challenges to the passenger proponents.

And while passenger operators are now routinely expected to cover their operating costs, in some cases they are also being required to pay back the initial capital costs. But perhaps the most important challenge is to ensure the safety of passengers and crew while operating in a mixed traffic environment on lines with many road level crossings.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s Next Generation High Speed Rail Program was set up to help the states address these challenges. This has three main objectives: