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High-speed rail: Train cars, locomotives may be on track for rebound

(The following story by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Tribune website on September 6, 2009.)

MT. VERNON, Ill. — Smack among the vast green and gold farm fields of southern Illinois, a steel graveyard filled with unwanted, broken-down locomotives symbolizes the weak state of the train-manufacturing industry in the United States.

A fertile opportunity lies ahead, however, for entrepreneurs who figure out how to safely, comfortably and economically transport passengers at higher speeds than today's Amtrak service over most of the nation.

The low demand for new locomotives is expected to turn around because the federal government is sending billions of dollars in economic stimulus grants to the states to support high-speed intercity rail travel. The Obama administration has allocated $8 billion in seed money toward developing about 10 high-speed corridors and purchasing trains, and it has proposed an additional $5 billion in spending over five years.

The infusion of money will help an industry feeling the full effects of the recession. Each month, only about one new freight locomotive rolls out of the plant in Mt. Vernon where the National Railway Equipment Co. is building new lower-emission engines that will be shipped to customers in Cameroon, the Ivory Coast and other distant lands. Production is down from about 12 locomotives built every month just two years ago, company officials said.

"Right now, the market is horrible," said James Wurtz Jr., vice president of the 25-year-old company that builds and refurbishes locomotives in Mt. Vernon and four other locations in the state, as well as in Kentucky, Louisiana and Canada.

The nascent drive to develop a network of high-speed rail routes offers hope that National Railway Equipment and other U.S. manufacturers of locomotives will soon have the chance to compete for new business. Some of the companies, including National Railway, already are working on prototypes of high-speed locomotives.

Transportation officials in Illinois and other states envisioning high-speed rail service face an Oct. 2 deadline to submit applications to the Federal Railroad Administration for grants to buy locomotives that would travel at least 110 m.p.h. along segments where safeguards are implemented to prevent accidents involving trains and other vehicles. California has launched the most ambitious program, aimed at operating electric-powered trains at 220 m.p.h. from Sacramento to San Diego.

The locomotive manufacturers aiming at the Midwest will be competitive only if they can bring to the market powerful new diesel-electric technology capable of pulling passenger trains at speeds of up to 125 m.p.h. The new American-made trains that will be compared to European and Japanese models must be cleaner, quieter and more fuel-efficient than most of the equipment now in use in the U.S., experts say.

National Railway Equipment is forming a team of engineers to develop a concept for passenger locomotives, as well as talking with other companies to build the coach cars, officials said.

"We are already conducting research to test how the wheels and frame of our new generator set engines operate at 110 m.p.h.," said Lawrence Beal, president and chairman of the board at National Railway Equipment.

If National Railway Equipment enters the competition, company officials hope a prototype -- a slope-nosed, aerodynamically designed passenger version of its N-ViroMotive locomotive -- will be completed relatively soon to undergo a safety evaluation at test tracks near Pueblo, Colo., run by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Association of American Railroads.

The N-ViroMotive technology has advantages over its competition because the multiple 700-horsepower engines mounted on each locomotive can be operated independently, when lower power is needed, or simultaneously to meet higher demand, Wurtz said.

In addition to fuel savings of up to 60 percent gained by dividing the power plant into sections, the engines have been found to produce up to 85 percent less noise than a traditional engine, he said.

"We achieved the noise reduction by using smaller engines and advanced muffler systems," said Steven Beal, executive vice president at National Railway Equipment.

The other locomotive manufacturers in the U.S. considered rivals for high-speed passenger equipment business are Electro-Motive Diesel Inc., based in La Grange with facilities in London, Ontario; GE Transportation, headquartered in Erie, Pa.; Boise Locomotive Co. in Provo, Utah; and Wabtec Corp., based in Wilmerding, Pa.

Amtrak locomotives serving the Midwest and most of the nation are able to reach 110 m.p.h., Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. But the fleet has a poor reliability record, particularly in winter, officials said.

"The Amtrak equipment we are using today is old, worn out and broken down. It needs to be rehabbed and replaced," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who plans to reintroduce legislation in Congress to provide funding to encourage passenger train manufacturers supplying foreign markets to bring their expertise to the U.S.

Amtrak is spending federal economic recovery dollars to rehab 15 diesel locomotives that were sidelined because of a lack of money. Still, the anticipated demand for locomotives and passenger coaches that will be needed for new routes and expanded service will exceed Amtrak's inventory, officials said.

"The states know we are very equipment-constrained and that the status quo won't do," Magliari said. "They are doubtlessly looking at locomotive and other equipment acquisitions."

It's a welcome development for manufacturers of modernized diesel-electric locomotives as well as strictly electric-powered trains.

California's initiative to operate trains up to 220 m.p.h. is the only plan in the U.S. outside Amtrak's existing Acela route on the Northeast to use electrification to power the trains. The top speed of Acela trains is 150 m.p.h. on some sections of the route.

Amtrak notified Congress in February that it is buying up to 60 electric locomotives for the Acela service.

Federal railroad officials said they expect more options to become available as technology is refined.

"Research and development on various propulsion systems continues here in the U.S. and abroad among different manufacturers and the academic community," said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

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