Next Stop: Amtrak’s New Trains Brake for Clean Energy

There are so many reasons to take a train. There’s the sit-back-and-relax passenger thing, watching the world roll by under glass, avoiding the many worries of the road. There’s the slow down, om factor, where you eschew faster modes of transport, take a breath, and surrender to getting there in due time rather than in half the time. Of course there’s also this phenomenon: Flying sucks. Always. Period.

And then there’s the environment: Getting around by Amtrak rail requires about a third fewer BTUs per mile than passenger cars, and half of what it takes to fly. Plug that draw into your handy times a million (people) times a billion (BTUs) calculator and, given the option, rail wins big for all of us – always.

And now Amtrak is getting even greener by ordering 70 new electric locomotives that will be more energy efficient than the “toasters” they’re replacing, boasting “regenerative braking systems” that automatically return electricity to the power grid. The new trains will cost $466 million and are earmarked to run in the rail system’s Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston and the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Under the six-year contract, manufacturer Siemens will start delivering the Amtrak Cities Sprinter ACS-64 electric locomotive in 2013.  They’ll be built using “renewable energy and provide cleaner, more efficient movement of people on the most heavily traveled rail route in the country,” says the “thrilled” (almost half a billion? I bet) president of Siemens.

The regenerative braking system, says the NYT, is used in cars like the Prius. When a electric vehicle slows down, its motors function as a brake and coverts energy in an electric current. In a car “the current goes back into the battery, which has limited capacity and can only accept it relatively slowly. On the train, the energy goes back into the overhead power lines and the electric grid, which can accept all of the energy quickly.”

Here’s another good reason to be hot on the tracks, and while Amtrak’s announcement leads with “it’s the economy, traveler” – the purchase will create 250 good ol’ American jobs, primarily at a facility in Sacramento, California, but also at plants in Norwood, Ohio, and Alpharetta, Georgia – green is green. So here’s to the green economy. Ride on, baby.

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at