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Amtrak to replace aging fleet of locomotives as railroad gets on financial track

| Monday, May 13, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

NEWARK, N.J. — Amtrak has shown off at a plant in California the first of 70 new locomotives, marking what the national passenger railroad service said it hopes will be an era of better reliability, streamlined maintenance and more energy efficiency.

On a broader scale, the engines displayed Monday could well be viewed as emblematic of the improving financial health of Amtrak, which has long been dependent on subsidies from an often reluctant Congress.

More than 31 million passengers rode Amtrak in the 2012 fiscal year, generating a record $2.02 billion in ticket revenue. Amtrak said it will be able to pay back a $466 million federal loan for the locomotives over 25 years using net profits from the Northeast Corridor line, where ridership hit a high last year for the ninth time in 10 years.

“The new Amtrak locomotives will help power the economic future of the Northeast region, provide more reliable and efficient service for passengers and support the rebirth of rail manufacturing in America,” Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said in a statement. “Built on the West Coast for service in the Northeast with suppliers from many states, businesses and workers from across the country are helping to modernize the locomotive fleet of America's Railroad.”

Robert Puentes, a senior fellow in the Brooking Institution's metropolitan policy program, said Amtrak isn't the same organization it was a few years ago, relying on federal handouts.

“Even though Washington is mired in debt and dysfunction, Amtrak is reinventing itself,” Puentes said.

The engines will be used on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston and on Keystone Corridor trains that run between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Three were shown on Monday before being sent out for testing. The first is due to go into service by fall, and all 70 are expected to be in service by 2016.

Amtrak awarded the contract in 2010 to Munich-based Siemens AG, which has made a big investment in the American rail industry in the last decade.

Among the improvements are computers that can diagnose problems in real time and take corrective action and a braking system capable of generating 100 percent of the energy it uses back to the electric grid, according to Michael Cahill, CEO for Siemens Rail Systems.

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