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Leaving L.A.: Who’s Riding Amtrak’s Social Media Special?

Amtrak’s Texas Eagle train runs south from Chicago to San Antonio and then west to Los Angeles. In early March, it has picked up for the return journey a load of bloggers, entrepreneurs and social media influencers headed for the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas. The idea was to spread the word about long-distance train travel and blog and tweet at #AmtrakLIVE during the 33-hour journey. “AmtrakLIVE had amazing scenery, engaging collaboration and the opportunity to explore and be inspired,“ said Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s social media director. “It was all part of the Amtrak long-distance experience.”

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Three GE Genesis locomotives pulled the Amtrak “SXSW special” from L.A. to Austin. The bloggers occupied two carriages at the end of the train filled with ordinary travelers.

The Texas Eagle, like most American long-haul passenger trains, is powered by a GE Genesis locomotive. GE engineers built the machines for Amtrak in the 1990s, and they remain the staple of train travel outside the electrified northeast corridor. “It’s a terrific locomotive, it’s essentially what ties the country together,” says Mark Murphy, who runs Amtrak’s long-distance routes. “Without it, our network of 15 long-haul trains providing service to small town and big cities across America would not be possible.”

The Genesis was conceived when Amtrak started looking for a new generation of passenger locomotives that could pull longer trains at higher speeds. “At the time, France and Germany were already building futuristic-looking trains and that was what Amtrak was seeking,” says GE’s Bob Parisi, who helped design the locomotive.

Parisi went to Europe and came back with a design solution called monocoque, where the outer structure carries most of the weight, kind of like an egg shell. This design was key to the Genesis since the locomotive weighs more than 268,000 pounds but has just four axles. It is also relatively small, since it must sneak through snug, century-old tunnels in the northeast. “Fitting all that weight in was by far and away the largest challenge,” Parisi says.

The team came up with a sleek locomotive that sports a short bullet nose and can go as fast as 110 mph. Murphy says that Amtrak can run the diesel locomotives “in a pinch” even on the electrified route between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

The locomotive’s 4,250 horsepower engine provides the train with “head-end power” used for lighting, heating, AC, cooking and, of course, WiFi for blogging.

The Genesis is using fully computerized diagnostics that allow the engineer to monitor the system and simplify maintenance and repair.

GE built several hundred of the locomotives. They helped Amtrak carry 31.6 million passengers last year, the most in the company’s history. 2013 was Amtrak’s 10th record ridership year in 11 years.

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Social media influencers like Digital LA’s Kevin Winston (front right) and BJ Mendelson (presenting) were aboard.

Amtrak calculates that rail travel is 17 percent more efficient than air travel and 34 more efficient than car travel. The company has cut diesel use by 6 percent over the last decade and it’s been looking for new ways to reduce the use of petroleum products.

In 2010, for example, the railroad retrofitted a GE P32-8 locomotive so that it burned a 20 percent biodiesel mix made from beef tallow. It ran on the Heartland Flyer route between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas. The beef-powered train earned Amtrak a spot on Time’s list of the 50 best inventions in that year.

Says Murphy: “We are constantly working with the engineers to make the locomotives as green as they can be.”

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