Railroads & Locomotives Tourist Railroad Profiles Travel: Last chance to ride Amfleet

Travel: Last chance to ride Amfleet

By Brian Solomon | April 1, 2024

| Last updated on April 4, 2024

The cars that saved Amtrak near retirement

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Amtrak’s Amfleet

side view of silver train with sun shining off it
Amfleet cars have been the standard long-distance equipment on many eastern Amtrak trains for decades. On Dec. 29, 2018, No. 57, the Washington, D.C.-bound Vermonter, slows for its station stop at Windsor Locks, Conn. Brian Solomon

As Amtrak’s Amfleet approaches a half-century of service, the fleet’s planned replacement is on order. Knowing this has stirred a well of nostalgia for the old cars. I grew up with Amfleet: these cars were introduced when I was in elementary school. Although at the time the technological significance of the new cars eluded me, I was impressed by their novelty. Over the years, I’ve taken countless trips aboard Amfleet cars, some of which count among my most memorable Amtrak travels.

The innovative Amfleet design was introduced at a time when American intercity rail travel was both under scrutiny and in jeopardy. The success of these cars should be studied and emulated. In the words of one Amtrak operating official, “Amfleet came out of the 1970s energy crisis. While they have served long past their life expectancy, we owe these cars a lot — they saved Amtrak.”

Amfleet was the final legacy of the Budd Co.’s influence on long-distance passenger rail transportation that began in earnest in the mid-1930s with the introduction of the diesel-powered, streamlined stainless-steel Burlington Zephyr. Amfleet was the adaptation of Budd’s Metroliner high speed train of the 1960s into a standardized locomotive-hauled passenger car.

The name “Amfleet” was coined by the marketing genius of Needham, Harper & Steers and perfectly described the role of the new cars. It was a significant design that offered many advantages over Amtrak’s inherited cars.

Amfleet introduced head-end power, enabling Amtrak to phase out antique steam heating arrangements that helped overcome the complications and limitations of integrating equipment with different standards that had been inherited from the myriad railroad fleets. Amfleet employed a crash-resistant tubular design and Budd’s patented shot-welded stainless steel construction that has proven to be exceptionally durable.

The cars combined well-designed trucks with a low center of gravity for excellent passenger comfort. The wider body offered more interior space and featured reclining seats with retractable tray tables. Electrically operated exterior doors made for rapid loading at high-level platforms.

The variety of car types included the Amcoach, Amcafe, Amclub, and Amdinette. Collectively they became known colloquially as ‘Am-cans’ — an allusion to the rounded stainless-steel shape.

As a young train rider, I was nostalgic for the variety of rolling antiques that characterized Amtrak’s early passenger fleet. Yet the Amfleet was modern. The cars exhibited bold 1970s décor that emphasized burgundy and burnt orange colors and track lighting. The feature that really caught my attention was the large rectangular electric buttons to open the doors between cars. Especially cool were the low-mounted foot panels that facilitated door opening with a swift kick. For a child, this was a huge improvement over struggling with the heavy metal doors and awkward handles of older cars.

On trips aboard Northeast Corridor trains between New Haven and New York City, my brother and I would explore the new cars as we hurtled along at speed.

Amfleet cars were decidedly Amtrak. The fleet was painted in Amtrak’s patriotic livery from the beginning. In their early years, they were hauled by F40PH diesels outside electric territory, and behind E60 and GG1 electrics under wire. I thought the cars looked best hauled by the Swedish designed AEM7 electrics in their original red, white, blue, and platinum mist livery. The exceptional compact size of the AEM7 was an interesting contrast to the length of the Amfleet cars.

Furthermore, the limitations of their HEP electrical supply required pairs of AEM7s on consists longer than nine cars, which resulted in some impressive double-headed trains.

Time is running out for these classics, yet as of this writing there are still 435 Amfleet cars in service, most of them in the East. They remain the staple on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, Empire Service, Keystone, and Downeaster trains, as well as on a host of longer distance trains such as the Carolinian, Pennsylvanian, and Vermonter. Since their glory days, the cars have received interior makeovers with a modern color scheme featuring pastels and greys.

What will become of the Amfleet as new Siemens Mobility “Aero” cars enter service beginning in 2026?

The Amfleet swan song is a few years down the line, so now is a perfect time to experience these classics on the move. My hope is that a set of eight or more cars will be preserved in full working condition so that future generations can experience the cars generations of Amtrak passengers relied upon for half a century.

5 thoughts on “Travel: Last chance to ride Amfleet

  1. I’ve ridden Amfleet only once, May 1978. Roundtrip on the Montrealer/Washingtonian from Union Station in D.C, to Gare Central in Montrealer with a bunch of college friends. Lots of memories. Mostly good ones.

  2. I have only made one trip on Amfleet cars in 2022 on the Pennsylvanian. All my other trips were on Superliners. Have to admit for older cars, the Amfleets were quite nice and comfortable.

  3. I believe three have been already sold to a short line.. Perhaps someone with knowledge of this transaction can elaborate.

  4. My first solo trip, at 8 years old, on Amtrak was on the Illini which used Amfleet equipment. This was the first time that I had even seen these cars. I was impressed with them, though I did not like the smaller windows.

  5. I have been an Amtrak rider since the first year it was created. At first I also missed the old mixed railroad cars that they inhereted from the private railroads. However over the years I got to like the Amfleet equipment. From the connivence of the automatic doors by using your foot or hand to do it. From the usual dependability of good heating or air conditioning compared to the old cars. I found the seats comfortable both for short trips in the northeast to some of the longer day train rides. I also hope some are preserved in operating condition and can be operated even when the newer cars come in use. At least a few should be given to railroad museaums so younger rail fans will know what helped save Amtrak.

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