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Amtrak Moves Slowly Toward an Acela Successor

by Staff

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at how Amtrak is moving toward faster trains in the Northeast. We’ll also get details on a fourth murder charge in the Gilgo Beach serial killings on Long Island.

A new train for the heavily traveled Boston-to-Washington corridor has moved a step closer to going into service.

The train, a long-overdue replacement for Amtrak’s Acelas, sounded like the railroad equivalent of the law school student who just couldn’t pass the bar exam. Amtrak officials said the train finally passed computer modeling tests — required under Amtrak’s contract with the manufacturer — on the 14th try.

That result was what the Federal Railroad Administration had been waiting to hear before it authorized real-life tryouts on the tracks. Amtrak said that putting the new trains through their paces on the tracks was “the next step in the safety certification process.”

The new train can’t go faster than 160 miles per hour — 10 m.p.h. more than the Acelas — because of speed restrictions along the aging tracks in the Northeast Corridor. Modernizing the tracks to make faster speeds possible would be daunting, would cost more than $100 billion and would need to be accompanied by changes in the right-of-way regulations that limit speeds.

As our colleague Mark Walker noted over the weekend, there were high hopes for the new trains in 2016, when Joe Biden, then the vice president, and Amtrak’s chairman at the time announced a $2.45 billion federal loan for the project. Amtrak then picked Alstom, the French-owned industrial giant that built the original Acela fleet, to manufacture the new trains.

Some 28 cars were supposed to be ready in 2021. So far, Alstom has delivered just 10, while Amtrak has spent more than $48 million on maintenance to keep the old Acelas going. Amtrak began running Acelas just over 23 years ago, when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor and Bill Clinton was president. Acelas have carried more than 60.8 million passengers since then, Amtrak says.

Amtrak should have retired the Acelas at the end of their life cycle in 2016. The railroad has not said when the new trains will be ready to carry passengers.

The replacements are designed to tilt so that they can take curves faster. The new trains will also carry as many as 386 passengers, 25 percent more than the current Acelas, but will operate on less energy — at least 20 percent, Amtrak says. And some materials in the passenger compartments will be sustainable, like seats made with recycled leather.

Word that the Acela replacement passed its test comes as work moves ahead on the $30 billion Gateway project to build a new rail tunnel connecting New Jersey to Midtown Manhattan and to rehabilitate the existing one.

The Gateway project is separate from the Acela replacement but is vital to train traffic in the Northeast Corridor. The tunnel project will add two new tracks under the Hudson River. Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for the Gateway Development Commission, the agency behind the project, said its focus was on “increasing reliability and resiliency of rail travel” for years to come.

But the completion date for the new tunnel is 2035, and the rehabilitation on the existing tunnel will take three years after that. By then, Amtrak may well be planning yet another generation of new Northeast Corridor trains.


Weather

A Currier & Ives scene? What you encountered on Tuesday probably depended on where you were. But the snow ended a 701-day streak since the last time an inch fell in Central Park. The National Weather Service recorded a total of 1.6 inches by 1 p.m. on Tuesday, including 0.4 inch before midnight on Monday.

As for today, expect sunshine and a chill with temperatures in the mid-20s and wind chill temperatures in the mid-10s during the day. The evening remains mostly clear, and temperatures will hold steady.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Feb. 9 (Lunar New Year’s Eve).



Rex Heuermann was arrested as the Gilgo Beach serial killer in July, but prosecutors charged him with three of the four murders of women whose bodies were found along a desolate Long Island beach parkway, bound with burlap, belts and tape.

He has now been charged with killing the fourth woman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, who was 25 when she was last heard from in July 2007. Prosecutors had said they were waiting for DNA tests to connect him to her death.

Our colleague Corey Kilgannon says that when prosecutors filed second-degree murder charges for Brainard-Barnes’s killing on Tuesday, they included an updated outline of the case in what could be a major blow for Heuermann.

The outline appeared to stun Heuermann’s lawyer, Michael Brown, who had disparaged their earlier account as dependent on a selective interpretation of facts and a reliance on DNA evidence that he said could easily be challenged.

But after a hearing on Tuesday, Brown deflected questions regarding the new evidence. He said that Heuermann had “maintained his innocence from Day 1” and that he was “looking forward to fighting these charges.” (Brown also said that the new evidence had only just been turned over to him.)

Heuermann pleaded not guilty to killing Ms. Brainard-Barnes, as he has to all previous charges, after he was marched into a Suffolk County courtroom with his hands shackled behind his back. He remained silent as the district attorney, Ray Tierney, asked the judge to keep him remanded without bail.

Later Tierney explained at a news conference that withered strands of hair found more than a decade ago had become crucial evidence in the case. He described how so-called nuclear DNA testing established matches with far more certainty than the mitochondrial DNA testing prosecutors had disclosed earlier. The new genetic analysis linked Heuermann to the four victims.

The DNA tests showed that a stray hair found with Brainard-Barnes’s remains had belonged to Heuermann’s wife, Asa Ellerup. It was found with one of the three belts used to bind Brainard-Barnes’s body.

Ellerup has not been charged in the killings; prosecutors have said she was out of town when the women vanished. Ellerup’s lawyer said later that the new details in the case only reinforced the idea that she had not been involved.


METROPOLITAN diary

Dear Diary:

I was on the subway, standing near the doors as I waited to get off the train.

I noticed a man sitting nearby reading a newspaper.

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