Amtrak's High-Speed Train Debuts

The high-speed Acela Express train, a first for the nation that Amtrak hopes will renew interest in rail travel and lure business travelers from airlines, entered regular service today with a trip that began in Washington before dawn and reached Boston by noon.

The snub-nosed train, which has a top speed of 150 mph and seats 304, had 114 people on board when it crawled out of Washington’s Union Station, on time, at 5 a.m.

The train picked up additional passengers at stops including Baltimore and Philadelphia before arriving at New York’s Penn Station at 7:47 a.m. — just three minutes behind schedule. The scheduled Washington-New York run is 16 minutes faster than the old 3-hour Amtrak timetable.

The train reached Boston at 11:41 a.m., 10 minutes late, after a ride of three hours, 38 minutes — about 80 minutes faster than a similar trip a year ago.

In all, the train covered 457 miles and made 11 stops in seven states before reaching Boston’s South Station.

“This is a special day,” said Amtrak President George Warrington, who boarded the train at its first stop, Baltimore-Washington International Airport. “It took us a long time to get here, and it took us a long time to get America here.”

‘It’s About Time’

Chronicling the historic trip with two cameras, one for still pictures and one for video, was Bob Rollins, a retired NASA employee from Boonsboro, Md., who became enamored of European-style high-speed trains while working overseas two decades ago.

“It’s about time. We need an interstate railway just like we have a highway system,” said Rollins, who planned to travel to Boston, have a leisurely afternoon, then take the same high-speed train back to Washington late in the day.

John Lewis, who lives with his family in Washington but just began working for a nonprofit foundation in New York City, said he may make Acela Express his regular means of commuting at the start and end of each work week.

Flying, he said, “is more expensive, and there could be delays. If this works, it’s easier.”

Randolph Becker, a minister from Williamsburg, Va., rode the train from start to end.

“It was my birthday today so I decided to treat myself in style,” he said as he exited the train in Boston. “It was fabulous, much faster, and the windows are much larger. You get a great view.”

20 by Summer

The eight-car train carrying Acela Express’s first paying passengers is the same one that carried VIPs from Washington to Boston on an inaugural run Nov. 16. The train is the first of 20 that Amtrak is receiving from manufacturers Bombardier Transportation of Canada and Alstom Ltd. of France.

Amtrak took possession last week of a second train that is being held in reserve as a backup. It will enter service when a third train arrives next month.

All 20 Acela Express trains should be operating by next summer. If the service proves popular in the Northeast, Amtrak hopes to offer high-speed service elsewhere in the country.

Acela Express incorporates the electric propulsion system of the French TGV, manufactured by Alstom, with Bombardier’s advanced tilt technology, which allows the train to take curves at higher speeds.

The top speed for most passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor, the area between Washington and Boston where tracks have been modernized, is 79 mph.

Speed and Comfort

Acela Express provides faster speeds and more amenities. It has 32 conference tables spread throughout its eight cars, enclosed overhead bins, video news programming, pub-style cafe cars with expanded menus and three audio music channels with headphone outlets at each seat. First-class passengers can have meals delivered to their seats.

The high-speed rail service, America’s first, was supposed to begin operating in October 1999, but problems with the tilt technology and premature wheel wear forced a series of delays.

Amtrak, which has received $23 billion in federal operating subsidies since its inception in 1971, is under orders from Congress to become financially self-sufficient by 2003. High-speed rail plays prominently in its survival plans.

Service in the Northeast Corridor is projected to earn $180 million a year. Amtrak says it was $484 million short of self-sufficiency in 1999, a year in which it posted record revenues of $1.84 billion.

The Cost of High-Speed Travel

A one-way coach ticket between Washington and New York is $143 on Acela Express, compared with $122 on the Metroliner service it is replacing. A one-way Acela Express coach ticket between Boston and New York is $120, compared with $57 on conventional Amtrak trains, which will continue to run in the Northeast Corridor.

The biggest time gain is expected between Boston and New York. As recently as last year, the ride took five hours, which included a stop at New Haven, Conn., to switch between electric locomotives and diesels.

Track improvements and the completion of electrification between New Haven and Boston, cut the trip to just under four hours early this year. The Acela Express train is scheduled to connect the two cities in three hours, 28 minutes. Next year, Amtrak plans to introduce a nonstop train that will shorten the trip to three hours, 15 minutes.

Initially, Acela Express will make stops at Baltimore-Washington International Airport; Baltimore; Wilmington, Del.; Philadelphia, and Trenton and Newark, N.J., before reaching New York.

On the northern leg, stops are scheduled at New Haven, Providence, R.I.; and Route 128 and Back Bay stations in Boston before the final stop at Boston’s South Station.

As more Acela Express trains enter service, some trains will add stops at New Carrollton, Md.; Metropark and Princeton Junction, N.J.; and Stamford and New London, Conn.