WASTING NO time in spending some of the $2·2bn in capital funding authorised by Congress late last year, Amtrak has awarded a $100m contract to GEC Alsthom Transportation Inc for eight new double-deck trainsets to be used in southern California’s San Diegan corridor.

According to Amtrak West President Gil Mallery, the re-equipment programme will lead to greater reliability, higher revenue and lower operating costs. ’We clearly have a vision for this corridor,’ said Mallery at the February 18 ceremony to announce the 40-car order. ’We want to move to hourly service and we would like to get to the day as quickly as possible where we can offer service between Los Angeles and San Diego in 2 h.’ (The current fastest timing is 2 h 45 min.) ’We think the ridership and revenue is there to support that kind of investment.’

The route is Amtrak’s busiest after the Northeast Corridor. It stretches 558 km along the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Of the 10 daily trains leaving San Diego each day, four continue past Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and one is extended to San Luis Obispo.

During the last financial year 1·6 million passengers were carried, and over the past two years patronage has jumped by 13%. But the Horizon and Amfleet coaches now in use - some nearly 30 years old - are life expired and fully depreciated. More importantly, they are costly to maintain and many give a shabby appearance.

The new five-car push-pull trains will each consist of one Custom Class car, a café/coach, two full coaches and a coach/baggage/cab car. They will be assembled at GEC-Alsthom’s plant in Hornell, New York, a facility formerly owned by Morrison-Knudsen, and will be structurally similar to the 66 California cars built for the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) several years ago by M-K at Hornell. However, their appearance will be radically different: Amtrak reportedly plans to apply a vibrant exterior paint scheme, although details have yet to be finalised. The interior design and complete choice of passenger amenities also remain under consideration, although large panoramic windows, power outlets for laptop computers and digital information displays will be provided.

Each train will have a total of 425 seats, most located on the upper level. Custom Class cars will have 77 seats (13 fewer than the standard coaches) equipped with audio and video entertainment systems and offering complementary beverages, newspapers and a public telephone. The café/coach will offer counter service and at-table seating for 12 on the lower deck plus 72 places upstairs. All cars will have two sets of electrically powered double sliding doors on each side just 254 mm above platform level, instead of the narrow entries and high floors of current equipment. Boarding and alighting will be much faster, especially for the elderly and handicapped. GEC Alsthom Transportation’s Chief Operating Officer, Raymond Mancardi, said the first deliveries will be made within 24 months.

The trains will be powered by some of the 21 new EMD F59PHI 3000hp locomotives already ordered from General Motors by Amtrak West at a cost of over $44m; delivery of these is due to begin this spring. Equipped with electronically-controlled fuel injection, they will be an improved version of the streamlined locos bought by Caltrans for the Capitol and San Joaquin corridors, and will replace trouble-prone F40s.

Mallery said the new cars represent the largest expenditure Amtrak has ever made in a single state, but he was quick to point out that California has been a generous partner in the revival of passenger rail service. It has contributed well over a billion dollars since 1990 for rolling stock, track and signal improvements, stations and operating subsidy, far more than any other state. Three sets of California cars and locos have already been assigned to the San Diegans, and a Caltrans-funded improvement project is under way on 106 km of main line in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Costing $38·3m, this will see modernised signalling, extended passing sidings and renewal of rail and sleepers. When this work is completed in June 1999, schedule reliability and punctuality of the trains running north of Los Angeles will be significantly enhanced.

According to Mallery, capital is what Amtrak has long needed to become financially independent and free of federal subsidy. And for the West Coast business unit, the money is arriving none too soon. ’We clearly feel that this will give us one of the important tools that we need ... so that we can build a system not just for today’s demands but to take care of the future growth that we see in this corridor.’ o

CAPTION: The eight new trainsets and 21 locomotives ordered by Amtrak West will be similar to the cars and locos purchased by California for its three inter-city corridors: the Capitol, San Joaquin and San Diegan