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Charger into the future: Inside Amtrak's new 4,400 hp locomotive

Entering service around the country, Siemens' Charger locomotive is a look at the future of rail travel in the US. At its Los Angeles unveiling, we checked it out.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Trains in the US lag behind their European and Asian counterparts, generally speaking. While Amtrak faces an uphill battle to improve or expand its service, one thing it can improve is the locomotive itself. 

It might surprise you to learn that the second busiest Amtrak region is the LOSSAN Corridor, aka the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor. On the busy Pacific Surfliner route, Amtrak and Caltrans are rolling out new state-of-the-art locomotives called Chargers.

Made by Siemens, these have recently, or will soon, also enter service in Illinois, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri and Washington, as well as Northern California. There's a possibility a modified version of this same locomotive will see use in New York and elsewhere. The electric version already is. If you live near a passenger rail line in the US, chances are you'll see a Charger in the near future.

At the train's Southern California unveiling at Union Station in Los Angeles, I got a chance to poke in and around to find out about this new machine.

Surfliner

The Pacific Surfliner route is one of the most scenic in the world. Following the coast from San Luis Obispo, which is north of Los Angeles, down to San Diego, it's 351 miles (565 km) of cliffs, beaches, palm trees, and if you time it right, sunset over the ocean. I've ridden it a bunch, and it's lovely.

Currently driving the double-decker coaches are EMD and GE locomotives, which are both are more than due for replacement. And replaced they all will be. The EMDs were sold to Metra in Chicago, with the GE Genesis P42DCs remaining in use until the Chargers are ready.

Built in California at a factory 80 percent powered by renewable energy, each of the 14 Surfliner Chargers will be owned by Caltrans, not Amtrak. They're the first passenger locomotives to pass the EPA's Tier IV emissions standards. Plus, according to Siemens, they're much quieter than the GE and EMD models they're replacing.

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Inside is a 95-liter, V-16 diesel that develops 4,400 horsepower, or 4,000 in Florida's Brightline guise. This is effectively just a generator, however, creating electricity to power the four AC traction motors that actually move the train. At full speed ahead, Chargers are capable of 125 mph, or around 202 kph, though in Surfliner service they'll cruise at around 90. If you've been to Europe in the past few years, you might have traveled on something that looks a lot like the Charger. That's because it's based on Siemens' Vectron, widely used across the Continent.

Charging around

Climbing up into the cab, I was struck by how distinctly modern it looks -- perhaps because my experience in train cabs tends to be of the significantly older variety. Three iPad-sized LCD screens line the console. A light sprinkling of levers and buttons show a smart simplicity in design, which likely works perfectly with the rote muscle memory of an engineer looking out the windscreen and not at the controls.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

In the rear of the cab is a single door that leads to the business end of the train. While the cab is well air conditioned on this hot early autumn day, the rest isn't, and I'm greeted by a warm blast. The engine isn't even running, so I can't imagine how much hotter this part of the train would be when in service. Or maybe not, since on the move the huge vents on the side likely let in quite a breeze. There's the smell of electronics and machinery, with a slight chemical tinge from the onboard toilet. From what I'm told, many locomotives don't have this luxury. Everything looks and smells new. New train smell, is that a thing? 

The next compartment holds the engine itself, a huge red beast of a thing. Massive ducts direct air in and out. Built by Cummins in Indiana, it looks a lot like the big marine diesels on most of the submarines I've toured.

The walkway loops around the engine in a "Y" shape. The tail of the Y is the machine room, where the power from the engine gets converted to what the motors need, as well as an inverter that supplies power to the attached cars for lights, air conditioning and so on.

Riding the rails

Trains are a tough sell in America. The country is just too big and for the most part, we're all too spread out for train travel to make much sense. Amtrak does what it can with its strange not-public-but-for-profit business model. 

Californians are largely optimistic and supportive of public transportation, having voted for gas tax increases to fund improvements to roads and public transportation, like these Chargers. With lower emissions than previous trains, and a claimed significantly lower fuel consumption per-passenger than car, these new trains are definitely an improvement over their predecessors. America may never have a rail network like Europe or Japan, but at least we're moving in the right direction. 

While you're waiting for a Charger to arrive at your local station, check out the gallery above to see what they look like up close.


In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on TwitterInstagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel