Jet-powered train could speed across nation

By Laurence Arnold The Associated Press
Wednesday October 16, 2002

WASHINGTON – The maker of America’s fastest train is shopping around a new product that could bring high-speed rail service to areas outside the Northeast. 

Bombardier Transportation says its new “JetTrain” locomotive, powered by a jet engine, can reach 150 mph without needing overhead electrical lines like those used by Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express. 

Bombardier led the consortium that built Acela Express, which operates in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor – the only electrified intercity corridor in the nation. 

Pierre Lortie, president of Montreal-based Bombardier, said Tuesday he is confident the equipment problems that have plagued Acela Express will not hurt sales of the new locomotive. 

He said several states are developing high-speed rail, and the company is targeting proposed high-speed lines within California, between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, between Chicago and St. Louis, between Tampa and Orlando in Florida, and between Toronto and Montreal. 

Lortie said the company could begin closing deals in the next few months. 

Bombardier has worked on the JetTrain for four years in partnership with the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration. Each side has invested about $20 million, Lortie said. 

The company says the new locomotive fits American demands because it is environmentally friendly, lightweight – thus causing less wear and tear on tracks – and capable of going into operation without major improvements to rail lines. 

“We believe JetTrain high-speed rail is the technology for America because it’s better, it’s faster and it’s sooner,” said Lecia Stewart, Bombardier’s vice president for high-speed rail for North America. 

The locomotive is powered by a Pratt & Whitney jet engine rather than a traditional diesel engine. Bombardier says it is 20 percent lighter than a diesel locomotive and can accelerate twice as quickly. It is also designed to meet stringent U.S. safety standards. 

Development of the non-electric locomotive is one piece of an ongoing effort by the Federal Railroad Administration to pave the way for high-speed rail around the nation. 

Bombardier showed off its new product at Union Station. The prototype locomotive – cherry red, with an American flag decal and the words “Turbine Powered” on its snub nose – sat at a station platform. 

The Federal Railroad Administration did not participate in the event, since it was a commercial product kickoff. But spokesman Warren Flateau said the FRA remains “very much a part of the partnership.” 

Also not represented at the event was Amtrak, which despite its financial woes remains the only current provider of regularly scheduled intercity passenger rail in the United States. Amtrak says it needs $1.2 billion from the government just to maintain operations for the next year and has shelved expansion plans, including those for high-speed rail. 

Lortie acknowledged that Amtrak could be a potential purchaser but said high-speed projects being developed outside Amtrak’s oversight are more promising. 

He specifically cited Florida, where voters two years ago passed a constitutional amendment requiring construction of a rail network, with trains exceeding 120 mph, by November 2003. 

Amtrak and Bombardier are locked in a legal battle over production delays and equipment problems that marred the introduction of Acela Express. 

Bombardier, a world leader in manufacturing regional jets and train cars, sued Amtrak in 2000, contending the railroad held up production through shifting demands and bad decisions. It is seeking at least $200 million in damages. 

Amtrak blames Bombardier and says that, under its contract, it reserves the right to seek more than $250 million in penalties. On Sept. 30, a judge denied Amtrak’s motion to dismiss the case. 

Amtrak and Bombardier continue to work together on equipment problems that grounded the Acela Express fleet for part of August. Lortie said the cracking that occurred underneath the high-speed locomotives was “an unfortunate technical issue, but I think it is behind us.”