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Rohr Turboliners rerouted to rail oblivion

(The following story by Cathy Woodruff appeared on the Albany Times-Union website on July 5, 2009.)

GLENVILLE, N.Y. — The only ones catching these trains now are the weeds.

Once among America's speediest, high-powered traveling machines, seven Rohr Turboliners in various states of decay and refurbishment sit idle at rail yards in Glenville and in Delaware.

A decade ago, they were the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to bring high-speed rail service to upstate New York.

Now, in the fading wake of a contentious custody battle between Amtrak and the state Department of Transportation, they are for sale.

Amtrak officials have set no asking price and a spokesman said "any and all options will be considered" for selling the trains individually or in groups.

"Those Rohr Turboliners are sort of an unwanted stepchild," said Bill Vantuono, editor of Railway Age magazine, where an ad seeking buyers for the trains appears this month.

"When they ran properly, they were very nice," he recalled, but "at least in this country, Turbos are a bit exotic."

The Turboliners are called "fixed consist" trains and are not designed for easy addition or removal of cars. Rather, they are intended to operate consistently as five-car "train sets."

Each Turboliner has a combination locomotive-and-passenger power car at each end and two full-size passenger cars and a café car sandwiched in the middle.

Produced in 1976 by Rohr Industries of California, which was known mainly for its aerospace manufacturing work, they were adapted from a French design.

With their new, compact turbine engines, the rebuilt Turbos were conceived as a diesel-fueled cousin to Amtrak's high-speed electric Acela trains.

They're fast. When tracks are in good condition, the Turbos can cruise at 125 mph -- and perhaps more. The dual-locomotive design reduces turnaround time for return trips.

Amtrak ran the trains for decades, and in 1998 teamed up with state DOT on a plan to upgrade tracks and rebuild the train for modern use between Albany and New York City.

The $185 million initiative was touted as a way to cut regular travel time between Rensselaer and Manhattan to two hours, shaving about 20 minutes off the trip. The plan was heavily dependent, however, on track improvements that would have allowed the trains to travel at their optimum speeds.

The track work never transpired. By the time the state called off continued rehabilitation of the trains at Super Steel Schenectady in Glenville in April 2005, New York had spent nearly $65 million on the effort and planned to pay $5.5 million more to cover remaining costs for the contractor.

Meanwhile, Amtrak already had carted away the three completely refurbished trains -- complete with New York state seals on the sides of their locomotives -- to its facility in Bear, Del., where they remain today.

New York was left with three trains in various degrees of repair and one that was virtually untouched after being retired by Amtrak and moved to Glenville.

The market for the trains is uncertain.

For Amtrak, a key concern was their mechanical difference from the rest of the railroad's Amfleet equipment. That meant specialized training for employees who maintained them, a special inventory of spare parts and detailed reference manuals, railroad officials said.

When first introduced in the 1970s, "the Turboliner trains were popular with passengers because of their smooth ride, large windows and sleek, modern appearance," said Amtrak spokesman Clifford Cole. "They were considered leading-edge train equipment ... when Amtrak was operating an inherited fleet of often tattered old equipment, some of which was manufactured in the 1930s."

The trains were not, however, as welcome in their 21st century reincarnation.

"The Turboliners were capable of sustained high cruising speeds" of over 110 mph, Cole said in a written response to questions about the trains. "However, their acceleration was relatively slow -- slower than conventional diesel locomotives, which essentially neutralized their high cruising speed capability. In practice, they used far more fuel than equivalent diesel-powered trains."

Also, he said, "the Turboliners were expensive to operate in other ways, including their need for frequent repairs. For much of their tenure on the NY-Albany run, they were assigned riding technicians to deal with enroute mechanical problems. The high temperatures produced by the gas-turbine engines was another liability that occasionally caused fires in the engine rooms of these trains."

Railway Age's Vantuono said that to most of the mechanical shop force in this country, "a turbine is a strange animal."

Phil Davila agreed.

"They require different care than a steam engine or an old diesel locomotive," said Davila, a founding partner of the Seneca Group, a railroad and transit consultancy based in Washington, D.C. But, he added, "they're very reliable, no matter what Amtrak says."

Davila became familiar with New York Turboliners in the 1990s, when he worked for Turbomeca, a French maker of gas turbines for helicopters. The company was involved in production of the new Turboliner engines.

He also worked as a consultant on New York's Turboliner program after moving to the Seneca Group.

Davila is a Turboliner fan and still believes they would have been a good addition to Amtrak service in New York. But with only three of the trains completely rehabilitated and with such limited use of turbine-powered locomotives in the United States, finding buyers is challenging, he said.

Three trains would be about right for an operation that needs two trains in regular operation and one in reserve, he said.

"In this country, it takes the right corridor for them to run," Davila said. "To find that corridor just for two trains is very hard to do and hard to make the numbers work."

Perhaps an overseas buyer would be more likely, he suggested.

While Rohr made only seven Turboliners, turbo trains are more common in other countries.

"There are some of these trains running in Egypt between Cairo and Alexandria daily," Davila said, and some are in regular use in Iran.

"There's a reason why this design survived," he said. "From an engineering standpoint, we consider it a shame to bury it and get rid of it."

Cathy Woodruff can be reached at 454-5093 or by e-mail at cwoodruff@timesunion.com.

Turboliner history

Seven Rorh Industries Turboliner trains have traveled a winding route since they went into service on the Empire Corridor in 1976.

1976: Seven gas-turbine "turbo" trains adapted from a French design are produced by Rohr Industries in Chula Vista, Calif.

1976: Amtrak deploys Rohr Turboliner (RTL) trains on New York's Empire Corridor.

1995: Gov. George Pataki ends funding for Maglev development, promises other high-speed rail.

September 1998: New York state and Amtrak say they will collaborate on $185 project to speed the trip between Rensselaer and Manhattan, rehab five turbo trains and add second track between Albany and Schenectady. Super Steel Schenectady named to rebuild first trains.

August 2000: First rebuilt Turboliner unveiled by Pataki at Super Steel plant in Glenville.

February 2001: Turboliner reaches 125 mph in secret night test run.

November 2001: Engineering setbacks, layoffs and financial strains at Super Steel fuel delays.

March 2002: Parts problems and engineering snags extend delays completing first two trains at Super Steel, now tapped to rebuild all seven trains under a $74 million contract.

August 2002: First rebuilt Turboliner delivered to Amtrak's Rensselear shop, passes first test run, according to Department of Transportation.

November 2002: DOT declares first train ready for service, Amtrak seeks more modifications. DOT Commissioner Joseph Boardman accuses Amtrak of dragging its feet.

December 2002: Second rebuilt Turboliner delivered to Amtrak.

January 2003: Amtrak says more testing, training, parts inventories and manuals needed.

March 2003: Super Steel President Scott Mintier complains Amtrak isn't providing engines and transmissions for last trains.

April 2003: Rebuilt Turboliner makes first round trip to New York City with paying Amtrak passengers aboard. Arrives back 15 minutes late due to heavy traffic.

June 2003: State comptroller's audit slams DOT for project delays and cost overruns.

December 2003: Amtrak, with three Turbos in hand, acknowledges it wants to withdraw from deal. $140 million in track work is not done, and Amtrak lacks funding to continue.

June 2004: Amtrak sidelines Turboliners indefinitely, citing poor air conditioning, insufficient seating and other issues.

Summer 2004: DOT asks Super Steel to stop work on remaining four trains.

August 2004: DOT sues Amtrak, saying railroad failed to live up to its contract commitments.

September 2004: Amtrak tows three Turboliners to Delaware. DOT's Boardman accuses Amtrak of "stealing" them. (In 2008, Boardman became president of Amtrak.)

May 2005: DOT agrees to pay Super Steel $5.5 million to end the project, in addition to $64.8 already spent for work on six Turboliners.

December 2007: DOT and Amtrak settle lawsuit, agree to split cost of $10 million in track improvements and share proceeds of any sale.

June 2009: Amtrak ad in Railway Age magazine offers seven Rohr Turboliners for sale.

Monday, July 6, 2009

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