New Trains in the Midwest

By Rick Harnish

The Illinois Department of Transportation and Amtrak did a soft launch of the new Siemens Venture coaches on Tuesday, February 1.  The official launch will be in mid-February.

The cars are being introduced at a rate of 8 cars per month starting with the Chicago – St. Louis Lincoln service then expaned to other routes as more cars become available.

These are the first new coaches to come to the Midwest in about 30 years and offer many new features that have been standard overseas for decades.

I rode on that first revenue run to Joliet.  Here’s a quick overview of what makes these cars a big step up from the Amfleet and Horizon cars they are replacing.

Automatic doors and retractable steps

The first thing you notice are the retractable steps, which make it safer to board. Soon, step boxes will be a thing of the past.

The steps can be set for 8 or 15 inch platforms. “Traps” make level boarding at 48 inch platforms possible.

Automatic “plug” doors are weather tight.

The steps and the doors can be controlled by a single crew person, and since the steps are so much safer, all the doors can be opened at once, cutting dwell times at stations.

Inside the Car

The cars feel more open and inviting. The windows are much bigger, letting in more light and better views.

The interior paint scheme and upholstery is well done.

The wider aisles make passing people much easier.

More importantly, they allow wheelchair users to access the entire train from a single lift that will be on the cafe cars.

Tables and Seats

The seats all face the middle. With the middle set facing a table. Most seats have a fold-down tray table.

The seats slide forward to recline rather than the back moving into the space behind.

I found the seats to be perfect for my back in the reclined position, though other regular passengers missed the full recline.

There has been concern about the seat being slightly smaller at 19.1 inches vs the Amfleet and Horizon cars 21 inches. This is made up for somewhat with space between them for standard electric outlets and USB plugs. Southwest Airlines seats are 17 or 17.8 inches wide.

Luggage and Bike Racks

Each end of the car has a luggage rack. One has space to store wheel chairs, the other can be converted to carry bikes.

Safer Gangways

The gangways between the cars are wider to allow a wheelchair to pass through when the train is stopped. They also provide a tighter weather seal. This is a big improvement, with more yet to come.

The first 20 Midwest coaches are being delivered as individual cars that can be uncoupled for service. 68 of the cars will be semi-permantly coupled in “married-pairs”. These pairs will have the wheelchair lifts.

California’s Venture cars are being delivered as semi-permantly coupled 6 car sets.

The standard overseas is to use semi-permanent couplers and service the train as a single unit. Keeping the trains together leads to more reliable trains and the ability to install better brakes.

From the passengers’ perspective, it also means that the gangways can be weather-tight so snow and rain don’t get in. And, wheelchair users can pass between cars while the train is in motion.

Hopefully, Amtrak will invest in a new shop in Chicago that will allow for Midwestern cars to be turned into trainsets.

They’re good looking

The attractive paint scheme will help market the service.

And, the big red reflective stripe will make them more visible at unsignaled rural crossings.

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