On August 9, 1965, with the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 pending, representatives from the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), the USDOT, and a private consulting firm began setting specifications for an electric multiple unit high speed passenger train. The PRR and the DOT clashed on several technical details. The PRR wanted cars capable of 125 miles per hour (201 km/h), while the DOT desired 150 miles per hour (240 km/h) or even 160 miles per hour (260 km/h) to beat Japan's Tōkaidō Shinkansen. The higher speed was chosen, but caused numerous design issues. The PRR wanted cars with cabs on both ends for maximum flexibility, while the DOT wanted 4-car sets; two-car sets with a cab on each end were chosen as compromise. The Act was signed into law on September 30. The Johnson Administration saw the new service as political capital and pushed for an aggressive schedule.
On May 6, 1966, the High Speed Ground Transportation project ordered 50 railcars from the Budd Company, with delivery beginning in September 1967. The PRR paid $10.4 million, with the remaining $9.6 million from the federal government. The order consisted of 20 coaches with Westinghouse propulsion systems, and 20 snack-bar coaches and 10 parlor cars with General Electric propulsion systems. On August 30, 1966, Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania announced plans to purchase 11 additional railcars for upgraded 80 mph (130 km/h) PRR regional service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. The cars were ordered through Philadelphia commuter agency SEPTA, as the state was not permitted to contract directly with the PRR. The state, SEPTA, and PRR reached an agreement on November 3; the state and SEPTA would each pay $2 million, funded mostly by mass transit grants from the newly formed Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the PRR would receive a free 15-year lease of the cars. The PRR soon withdrew after complaints from competing Red Arrow Lines and Capitol Trailways, and the HUD grants were later found not to be applicable to intercity service, but the order was still placed.
The ancestor of the Metroliner multiple unit railcar was the Budd Pioneer III which had been developed for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1958 as a new concept in long distance passenger service in the east. The cars used new propulsion technologies and lightweight construction in an effort to improve performance compared with older electric MU technology. After a fleet of 55 improved Pioneer III cars referred to as Silverliners were ordered for commuter trains in the Philadelphia area, the United States Department of Transportation placed a follow up order for 4 Silverliners, specially modified for high speed operation on the PRR's Northeast Corridor. Equipped with several modifications, including a semi-streamlined slab end on the front of the lead car, the experimental train ran a series of test runs, reaching a speed of 156 miles per hour (251 km/h) on April 2, 1967. This success allowed Metroliner testing to begin.
The new railcars were built for high-floor boarding, with only one door on each car able to serve low platforms. Along with the M1 series built for New York commuter service at the same time, these were among the first high-floor-only railcars in mainline service in the country. High-level platforms were constructed at several stations beginning in 1967. In May 1967, an initial service date of October 29, 1967 was announced. The name "Metroliner" for the railcars was proposed in June, and one unit was displayed at the Budd plant in July.
The first Westinghouse-powered Metroliners were delivered to the testing location at Jenkintown station in September 1967, and immediately began testing on the Reading Company's West Trenton Line. After multiple failures of the control and propulsion systems at just 70 mph (110 km/h), PRR executives pushed for a delay in service, announced on September 20 as a postponement to January 1. The first two cars began testing on the PRR's main line on November 18, soon reaching speeds up to 125 mph (201 km/h). The cars reached 164 miles per hour (264 km/h) near Princeton Junction in southern New Jersey six days later, but the testing also indicated that the cars would not be able to operate anywhere near that speed in revenue service. On December 17, 1967, tests of Metroliners passing older MP54 railcars caused windows to be ripped out of the MP54s due to the pressure drop, indicating that high-speed rolling stock may not mix well with legacy equipment.
On February 1, 1968, the PRR merged with New York Central Railroad to become Penn Central. The remainder of cars were delivered with Penn Central logos, but retained the PRR-specified livery of gray paint with red pinstripes. On March 2, the first GE-powered Metroliners arrived for testing. The GE-powered cars proved to have a superior pantograph design - the pantographs on the Westinghouse-powered cars would bounce on the aging catenary wires, then drawn high currents due to improperly designed transformers - but were still not fit for service. On March 12, entry into revenue service was delayed indefinitely. Testing was suspended entirely between June 24 and mid-July; tests with 6-car trains in July had severe issues with electrical arcing. The first combined test train of GE and Westinghouse cars ran on August 8.
In June 1968, an agreement was reached where the state Transportation Assistance Authority would pay $2 million and Penn Central would pay $2.5 million for the 11 Metroliners for Harrisburg service. On July 14, a 4-car train was tested on the line, with several demonstration runs for officials on August 21. In early October, several test trains proved the viability of the planned sub-3-hour schedules. Substation modifications later that month and a legal settlement between Budd and Penn Central in November paved the way for service to begin. On December 20, Penn Central announced that Metroliner service would begin on January 16, 1969.
A Washington-New York round trip for VIPs was operated on January 15, 1969. Metroliner service finally started on January 16, 1969, with a single daily round trip leaving New York in the morning and Washington in the afternoon. Echoing problems encountered during testing, several early trains sucked windows off passing trains of MP54 cars. An eight-car train was tested on February 5, but the numerous circuit breaker trips and catenary outages indicated that since trains would not be soon practical. Testing on the electrified mainline to New Haven, Connecticut, took place with some difficulties in February. The Westinghouse cars continued to lag behind the GE-powered cars; the former were first tested at 160 mph (260 km/h) with serious issues in February, and did not enter service until midyear.
Service was gradually increased, including a non-stop round trip on a 2.5 hour schedule was added April 2, 1969. However, problems with the cars persisted; maximum speeds temporarily dropped from 120 mph (190 km/h) to 110 mph (180 km/h) soon after. Due to the condition of the track and signal system, the Federal Railroad Administration never allowed Metroliners to go faster than 120 mph (190 km/h) between Washington and New York. Still, they were the fastest trains in North America and provided speed, comfort and amenities that could compete with the airlines. Two years into the service, half of passengers had switched from other modes, and 70% were men on business trips.
On February 25, 1970, the 11 Westinghouse-powered cars intended for Harrisburg service completed their performance testing. Penn Central refused to accept the cars, citing numerous technical issues with the cars and their general unsuitability for the service. They had worse acceleration than the Silverliners already in service, tended to overheat when making numerous closely spaced stops, and had difficulty climbing the grade out of Suburban Station. Additionally, the corridor lacked high-level platforms to effectively use the cars, and 15 substations would require expensive modifications. The 11 cars were unused for some time before Penn Central ultimately decided to lease the cars for use on the core New York - Washington service. They were moved back to the Budd plant for modifications in April. In July, the state authorized $100,000 to upgrade Silverliners for the Harrisburg service instead.
By March 1970, even as cars continued to be accepted, the DOT began considering modifying two cars under a test program. The DOT and Penn Central began holding meetings in May, deciding to modify one car of each propulsion type at first, followed by four additional cars. Out-of-service rates reached 40% and higher; In June, Senator Clifford Case of New Jersey began pushing the DOT to devote $5 million to the rebuild program to increase reliability. The official two-year demonstration program began on October 1. In December, a feasibility study of upgrading the cars for higher sustained speeds was initiated. By February 1971, top speed had been reduced further to 100 miles per hour (160 km/h).
On May 1, 1971, the newly formed Amtrak took over intercity passenger rail services from Penn Central and the other private railroads. The DOT contracted with GE and Westinghouse in June for a R&D project of further electrical modifications, with detailed plans made in July. On September 8, 1971, Amtrak completed purchase of its basic fleet, including 49 of the Metroliners. The twelve additional cars - likely including the 11 originally built for Harrisburg service - were leased from the Budd Company on that date. With most cars available for use, Amtrak increased frequencies on the profitable Metroliner service. Service reached 12 daily round trips that November, including service to New Haven, but a permanent 100 mph (160 km/h) speed restriction was also enacted.
In early 1972, Amtrak considered converting the Metroliners to locomotive-hauled operation; however, with the cars the only new rolling stock in Amtrak's possession, it was decided to continue efforts to increase their operating reliability instead. In February, GE-powered car was shipped to Erie, Pennsylvania for the DOT-funded rebuild program, with hopes to modify all cars by 1976. It was followed by a Westinghouse-powered car in March. In late April, Amtrak accepted six of the leased cars for revenue service, which permitted an increase to 14 round trips on May 1. An additional pair of cars were sent for rebuild later in the year.
In October 1973, Amtrak placed an order for 57 Amfleet coaches, the first of what would ultimately be a fleet of over 600. Although the Metroliner propulsion systems had proved unsuccessful, the carbodies were well-liked, and the Amfleet cars had the same basic structure. By November, the first two rebuilt cars had been completed and were waiting for legal agreements to enter testing. The dynamic braking resistors and the air intakes were relocated to a streamlined bump on the roof, reducing overheating and snow ingestion issues that had occurred when they were mounted under the carbody. The rebuilt cars had a maximum speed of 130 mph (210 km/h). Two additional cars were completed by February 1974. All four rebuilt cars were tested at up to 150 mph (240 km/h) in May and returned to revenue service as a four-car set on July 1. The rebuilding was largely successful except for continued issues with rough-riding trucks, but it cost $500k per car - more than the original cost of $450k each.
Later in the year, Amtrak began an accelerated repair program on the unmodified cars, which had logged over 11,000,000 miles (18,000,000 km) in revenue service, but very few cars were actually repaired. By the end of 1975, out-of-service rate was still 27.5%, and many trains ran with fewer cars than demand called for. In February 1976, Amtrak cut Metroliner service from 15 to 13 round trips because of the lack of serviceable cars. In August, Budd unveiled the SPV-2000, a Rail Diesel Car successor built with the Metroliner shell design. Although heavily market, the SPV-2000s were extremely unreliable and never achieved the widespread use of the Metroliners and Amfleets.
In 1976, Amtrak began seeking new electric locomotives to replace its aging GG1 fleet and speed-restricted E60 fleet. That October, a Swedish Rc4 locomotive pulling Amfleets took over one Metroliner round trip - the first time that a locomotive-hauled train could match a Metroliner schedule. That year, Amtrak contemplated ordering an additional 118 Metroliners, dubbed Metroliner II. This projected order was later cut back to 50 cars and finally cancelled altogether. Over 1976, on-time performance halved from 81% to 46%. In November, consultant Louis T. Klauder & Associates issued a report showing that the rebuilt cars had half the maintenance cost of the original cars and recommended an aggressive overhaul program.
On February 6, 1977, Amtrak announced plans to spend $24.4 million to overhaul all 61 cars as part of a larger fleet renewal program. In early 1977, some cars were repainted in Amtrak's Phase I paint scheme with red, white and blue ends and a small Amtrak logo. On September 28, the Amtrak board approved a more limited overhaul program of 16 Metroliners, as well as the purchase of the first 8 AEM-7 electric locomotives. On November 7, Amtrak released specification for overhauling the 57 unmodified cars, and awarded a $20 million overhaul contract to GE that month.
In January 1978, the New York Times reported that Amfleet-based trains with conventional locomotives had better on-time performance than the Metroliners. In March, as Metroliner cars were shipped to GE for overhaul, a GG1/Amfleet set took over one round trip on a slower schedule. Eight GG1s were regeared for 110 mph (180 km/h) to better meet Metroliner schedules, with the higher top speed balancing the locomotives' lower acceleration. On April 30, 1978, schedules were lengthened to 3 hours 20 minutes as more Amfleet-based trains were used, and the name was modified to Metroliner Service to reflect the changing equipment. Three round trips used Amfleets by May 29, with a 3:25 scheduled running time.
The first rebuilt cars entered service on May 17, 1979. By July, the rebuilt cars operated three round trips, with four by unmodified cars and 4 with Amfleet equipment. By January 1980, rebuilds covered 6 of 14 daily round trips. Some of these later rebuilt cars received the Phase II scheme, a red and blue front end with a large Amtrak logo across the full width. The first AEM-7 locomotives entered service in mid-1980; capable of 125 mph (201 km/h) with Amfleet equipment, they could readily match Metroliner Service schedules. Three were in Metroliner Service use by August 11, with an increase from 12 to 14 round trips in October. The increasingly unreliable Metroliners were slowly withdrawn as more AEM-7s arrived; the newer locomotives could take advantage of recent track upgrades that the Metroliners could not. By November 15, 37 Metroliners had been overhauled, but rebuilding plans were cancelled for the remaining 24.
When Amtrak began returning rented Jersey Arrows to New Jersey Transit in late 1980, other equipment was needed to cover Silverliner Service trains on the Harrisburg corridor. Test runs of Metroliners on the corridor began in January 1981, and revenue service in February, despite warnings a decade before that the cars were not suitable for the service. The last non-rebuilt Metroliners in regular use on Metroliner Service trains were removed on April 1, 1981, followed by the GG1s in May The last Metroliner Service trains using Metroliners ran on October 23, 1981. With all Metroliner Service trains covered by AEM-7/Amfleet sets, all Keystone Service trains to Harrisburg then used Metroliners, rebranded as Capitoliners.
However, by the mid-1980s, reliability had become such a problem (even on the slower Harrisburg corridor) that trains of Metroliners were often towed by locomotives. On January 25, 1988, Amtrak began towing all Metroliner cars on the Keystone Service with AEM-7 locomotives rather than running them under their own power, although the cars had their pantographs up to power lighting and heating systems. A wreck of the Night Owl four days later two took AEM-7 locomotives out of commission, exacerbating a shortage of electric power available to Amtrak. On February 1, Amtrak converted all Keystone Service trains to diesel power and terminated them on the lower level of 30th Street Station, as diesel-powered trains were not allowed in the tunnels to Suburban Station. The Metroliners continued to be used as coaches for several years before being replaced by Amfleet cars.
In the late 1980s Amtrak found itself with a supply of surplus Metroliner cars with problematic propulsion systems, but with sound body and frame, stored at their Wilmington and Bear shop complexes in Delaware. The coaches were, except for the propulsion systems, a near-identical match to Amfleet coaches. Twenty-nine of the 31 coaches were renumbered and used as cab control cars for corridor services. This allowed them to operate in push-pull service, rather than needing to be wyed at terminals or to have a locomotive on each end.
The first 23 cab car conversions, which included full removal of the propulsion gear and roof hump, took place around 1988. Ten (9630–9639) were designated for West Coast routes including the San Diegan, six (9640–9645) for the Atlantic City Express, and seven (9646–9652) for Chicago-based regional services. Coach #809 was pressed into cab car service with minimal modifications, making 24 active cab cars by 1990. Five more - #822 and 825–828 - soon followed. When the P40 locomotives arrived in 1991 and used 800-series numbering, the later cab cars were renumbered 9709, 9822, and 9825–9828.
The discontinuance of the Atlantic City Express in 1995, and the arrival of the California Cars in 1996 and the Surliners in 2000–2002, lessened the need for the Metroliner-based cab cars, although the Vermonter began using them when a backup move was added in 1995. The later cab cars, and some of the earlier conversions, were retired in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2007, six of the 9600-series cab cars were brought out of retirement to support additional frequencies on the newly re-electrified Keystone Service. After the Vermonter's backup move was eliminated in 2014, the ex-Metroliner cab cars are used primarily on the Keystone Service and New Haven–Springfield Shuttle.
Ten Metroliners - eight parlor cars and the two coaches not used as cab cars - were used as unpowered coaches to supplement the Amfleets primarily on Midwest routes. Eight were renumbered 44550-44557; 886 and 887 were not renumbered. One of the coaches, #44553 (ex-#884) was rebuilt in 2013 as Amtrak catenary measurement car #10005.
Metroliner car #803 served as cab car #9642 from 1988 to 1996. In June 1999, the Federal Railroad Administration obtained the car from Amtrak. After a yearlong refurbishment, it entered service in November 2000 as T-16 (DOTX 216), a research and track geometry car capable of measurements at up to 160 mph (260 km/h). It is used to measure track conditions for the Acela Express service.
Cab car #9652, formerly #821, was leased to Bombardier in August 2000. Converted to test car DOTX 220, it was used during testing of the JetTrain at TTCI. After the lease expired in 2003, it was returned to Amtrak, then later returned to TTCI as DOTX 222.
Snack bar car #863 was converted to #9800, an Amtrak business/conference club car available for charter and special events. It is sometimes used as a crew lounge for special trains.
Except for the 9600-series cab cars - which are still used in revenue operation - and the four cars modified for other uses - most of the former Metroliners were scrapped in Delaware between 2003 and 2011.
One Metroliner snack bar car, #860, is preserved at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in its original paint scheme and interior.