The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is connecting our region's train operators and planners with new ideas about how to design and operate trains. A train’s locomotives and coaches affect everything that matters to both riders and operators: comfort, speed, safety, operating costs, ridership and revenue. We need to learn from overseas experience and update our passenger train fleet to deliver high performance on both dedicated high-speed track and on existing freight track. All of our trains need modern equipment, not just ultra-fast trains running exclusively on high-speed lines.
U.S. passenger trains have not changed much since the 1950s. Outdated safety rules and a focus on backward compatibility have conspired to slow technological development. As a result, passenger rail operators are locked into higher costs and lower revenue, while riders are stuck with aging and less-than-ideal trains.
In contrast, automobiles have come a long way since the 50's. Today’s Chevy Impala is a very different car than the swept wing beauty of 1959. Whether driving on twisty back roads or at top speed on the Interstate, the newer car will accelerate faster, corner better, maintain higher speeds more safely, and provide a more secure, comfortable ride, all while using less fuel.
Meanwhile, train designs have evolved in other parts of the world. Like new cars, new train designs are safer, protecting passengers better in a crash. They are strong yet light, allowing them to accelerate quickly and remain stable at high speeds. They have a low center of gravity and sophisticated suspensions that allow faster running through curves. Whether on dedicated high-speed corridors or conventional branch lines into small towns, modern trains maintain higher speeds and reach destinations faster.
Space to work or space to relax
Trains have always been a great way to travel, but modern train designs make it even better. They offer a variety of spaces to accommodate the demands of different types of passengers. Coach and first-class cars include several seats that face a table, making it easier to get work done or have a meeting. Some train designs include private lounges or conference rooms, as well as special play areas for kids. Power outlets and Wi-Fi are available throughout the train.
Overhead shelves let people keep bags nearby, while racks near the doors are a better place to leave larger items. Bicycles roll right on and are secured in special holders, so passengers can take them on and off without any special attention. The cafe cars offers a place to grab a quick bite or a drink, while a more formal dining car serves full-service meals.
Level boarding, where the floor of the passenger car is level with the station platform, makes station stops faster, easier and safer. It helps passengers with limited mobility and those pulling luggage by removing the need to climb stairs. It also removes the need to have doors be attended by train staff, meaning all doors can open instead of just a few. Removing this bottleneck prevents long, slow lines of passengers alighting and boarding and keeps station stops short.
American railroads have long thought that the high-level platforms required for level boarding are incompatible with freight trains. Until recently, the platform had to be too close to the tracks for wider freight cars to safely pass. The new Brightline service in Florida is using "gap fillers" to solve this problem. These gap fillers automatically extend from the train door to the platform, allowing for freight train clearance while providing a seamless surface from the train to the platform.
Most trains in the United States are made of individual coaches that are coupled together, but walking between these cars can be a nuisance, or even dangerous. Whenever someone opens the door to pass from one car to another, noise and drafts from outside enter the passenger space. The footplates between cars can suddenly shift on rough track or in curves, posing a pinching or tripping hazard. The gap between cars allows snow and rain to enter the vestibules, creating slip and fall hazards. During winter, employees must routinely salt and shovel these spaces between cars.
Keeping cars together in a unit trainset allows for nearly seamless, weather-tight walkways. This eliminates the nuisances and safety hazards of passing between cars. It also makes the ride more comfortable for everyone by eliminating noise and drafts of outside air.
Unified trainsets are stronger and easier to operate
Most Amtrak and commuter trains in the U.S. are made up of individual coaches pulled by locomotives. The understanding is that this creates flexibility to size the train to fluctuating demand and to pull out a single car for repair rather than sideline the entire train.
These apparent advantages have their downside. Switching out cars is expensive and slow, and increases the probability that something may go wrong. It also discourages the discipline needed to prevent malfunctions from occurring in the first place. Keeping the cars together in semi-permanent unit, or “trainset,” motivates the operator to conduct regular maintenance to keep the entire train in service.
Trainsets also allow for better management of the forces created in a collision. In a crash, the outdated design of today’s U.S. passenger fleet focuses compression forces on the coupler face, improving the odds that the train will jackknife or roll over. In contrast, these forces are managed better in a unit-train design, keeping the vehicle inline and upright and reducing injuries and fatalities.
A trainset should also have driving cabs on both ends, so that it does not need to be turned around at the end of a route. At the end of many Midwest routes today, Amtrak must turn the train around, or decouple the locomotive from the train and switch ends. These complicated and slow maneuvers waste money and prevent tighter train schedules.
Lighter trains are faster, more efficient, and safe
For years, federal regulations have required that passenger trains be very heavy for the sake of safety. Our nation's fastest train, the Acela, has been called a "high-velocity bank vault." Meanwhile, modern high-performance passenger trains around the world are lighter than their U.S. counterparts without sacrificing strength or safety. They use advanced construction technologies and materials, using crash energy management and minimizing weight by replacing heavy frame structures with aluminum corrugated box construction. Fortunately, regulations in the U.S. are being updated to allow these modern, lightweight trains.
Lighter trains accelerate more quickly, stop sooner and run more efficiently. Acceleration and deceleration are important to travel time. The sooner a train gets back up to cruising speed after departing a station, the higher the average speed will be over an entire trip, reducing travel time. It makes all traffic on the railroad flow better. Lighter trains also cause less wear and tear on the rails.
The heaviest part of the train is the locomotive. It needs to be heavy to keep its wheels from slipping. Lighter weight train sets can be pulled by lighter weight locomotives with the added benefit of reduced fuel or electricity consumption. Multiple-unit trains dispense with the locomotive altogether by spreading the motive equipment throughout the train. These trains can be powered by overhead wires, diesel engines, or both.
For the same reasons that a low-slung sports car can takes turns faster than an SUV, a train with a lower center of gravity can take curves faster. They lean out from curves less and put less force on the outer rail.
While high-speed lines have gentle curves and are very smooth, the Phased Network Approach has trains using existing, older freight track for parts of some journeys. Slowing down for a curve reduces average speed, so trains that can take curves faster are critical to achieving competitive transit times. They also have the advantage of swaying less on rough track, adding to passenger comfort.
Articulated trains, in which passenger cars share “trucks” (wheel and axle assemblies) with the adjoining cars, improve average speed, passenger comfort and safety. While this configuration sacrifices some capacity per train length and results in higher axle loads, it provides advantages on rough, heavy-haul freight track.
Faster through curves
With individual cars, whether they are independently coupled or semi-permanently coupled, each car rides through a curve with independent motion, exerting its own forces against the outer rail. Shared trucks lessen lateral stresses on the roadbed as each car pulls the following car through a curve. The result is higher speeds through curves.
Railroad wheels are heavy. A single 36-inch rail wheel can weigh more than a ton. Shared trucks reduce the number of wheels and the weight of the train, letting trains accelerate faster and reducing wear on the track.
Smoother ride, wider aisles and seats
The articulation joints cause the ride to be much smoother because each car isn’t bouncing around on its own. Because the car ends do not hang over the truck, the effective width of the train through curves is reduced and articulated trains can be as much as 8” wider than conventional trains for the same track and tunnel profiles. This allows for wider aisles and seats, improving comfort.
Tilting trains lean into curves, much like a cyclist does, reducing the feeling of side-to-side forces in sharp curves. This allows trains to travel faster on older, curvy track while maintaining passenger comfort. Switching to tilting Talgo trains on Amtrak's Cascades corridor in the Pacfic Northwest cut 30 minutes of travel time from the 150 mile trip. Tilting trains could save a similar amount of time on the trip between Chicago and Detroit.