An Amtrak Turbo in Empire Service runs along the Hudson River on Metro-North tracks at Roa Hook, near Peekskill, New York, on June 5, 1997.
Amtrak's Temporary Turbos
By Steve Barry/Photos by the author
The relationship between passenger trains and turbo power in North America has been a rocky one. I had missed the big United Aircraft turbos in the United States, only seeing them sitting still in Ivy City Engine Terminal in Washington, D.C., before going off to scrap. I did catch them running twice on VIA before the Canadian sets were retired and also scrapped.
An Amtrak Turbo on the Park Avenue Viaduct, about to enter the tunnels that lead to Grand Central Terminal in New York City, in March 1991. Photo by Steve Barry
Railfanning the former New York Central between New York City and Niagara Falls in the 1980s meant encountering the Rohr-built RTL turbos on many occasions, as these were the primary trainsets on Amtrak's Empire Service. Built in 1976-77, these trainsets traversed New York for about two decades. They were sleek and modern, and a much needed boost for rail service in the area. But as the 1990s waned these turbos were retired, replaced by standard Amfleet equipment.
In 1995 Amtrak embarked on a rebuilding project of the seven RTL trainsets. They would receive more powerful turbines and upgraded interiors. Alas, only one set ever got upgraded before the project was canceled. Would I ever get to see a turbo set running on Amtrak?
A northbound Amtrak Turbo ducks under the famous High Bridge viaduct, running on Metro-North tracks through The Bronx in 1990. Photo by Steve Barry
Shortly after I moved to northern New Jersey in 1996, the turbo fleet was down to the lone RTL-II (upgraded) train. This set would head south along the Hudson River every morning at about 8:30. Living only 45 minutes from the line, I would often drive over to the Bear Mountain area (about 40 miles north of New York City) and catch this set before heading into work. But all was not doom and gloom -- the other turbo sets were heading to Super Steel Schenectady for rebuilding as New York State and Amtrak entered into a new partnership for high speed service along the Empire Corridor.
The first sets was to enter service in 1999, but by 2002 only the RTL-II was running, and it was retired that year. The RTL-III trainsets first two RTL-III sets were finally finished in 2003 and briefly entered service, but vanished before I ever saw them. A third set was completed but never ran. The remaining four sets (including the RTL-II set) were never converted, as New York State canceled the project in 2005 after spending over $70 million.
The turbos suffered from one serious flaw — they were gas hogs. They sounded like jet engines when they roared by, and they drank fuel like their winged brethren. In many ways they were ahead of their time, but in other ways they were behind the times. As this is written, they remain in an industrial park awaiting auction, and will likely all be scrapped. They were a unique chapter in Amtrak's history of continuously improving passenger service in America.
I'm going to miss them.