Overview: The vast majority of NEC trains are powered by electricity. A complex system of overhead wires, called “catenary,”carry power over the tracks, while “substations”Â located at key points on the line connect the catenary to the regional power grid. As trains move, “pantographs” – mechanical arms on top of each train – draw electricity from the catenary to power the engine.
Both catenary wires and the power supply system are in need of investment. Like many components of the NEC, portions of the catenary wires date back to the 1930s and are extremely susceptible to failure. During extreme heat, the wires tend to sag. Fast-moving pantographs can become tangled in the catenary wires and tear them down, stopping all trains on the track. These events create major delays for riders and can cause significant damage to the system. Trains travel at slower speeds during high temperatures to avoid this situation. The solution to this problem is modern “constant-tension” catenary that keeps wires taut at any temperature.
On the southern end of the NEC, Amtrak is planning to substantially replace direct-fixation catenary with constant-tension catenary. The new system would greatly improve reliability and enable Amtrak to increase speeds of its high-speed service in key locations. In 2011, Amtrak won a $450-million grant to begin work on new catenary and other improvements on a 22-mile stretch of the NEC in New Jersey, which will increase current Acela Express top speeds from 135 to 160 mph, making it the fastest stretch on the NEC. Between Boston and New Haven, constant-tension catenary was constructed in the 1990s to prepare for the introduction of Acela Express service. Between New York and New Haven, the state of Connecticut is in the process of replacing the catenary system but faces significant funding gaps while it aims to complete work by 2017.
The NEC’s electrical substations are also in need of investment. Spaced strategically along the line, substations are necessary to convert electricity to the frequency used by trains. Over time, many of the components at each substation have deteriorated, undermining the reliability of the system. To ensure the NEC maintains a consistent and reliable source of power, Amtrak aims to make improvements at several key points on the line. This work would include the rehabilitation of several existing substations and the replacement of several transmission lines that serve them.