Acela Express Garners Raves

For decades, the people running Amtrak had to wince when Americans returning from overseas train trips proclaimed: “Why can’t you do that here?”

U.S. rail officials think they’ve finally got an answer: the Acela Express, a 150 mph bullet train that hit record speeds and grabbed rave reviews Thursday on its debut Washington-to-Boston run.

A full load of VIPs nibbled on salmon, filet mignon, prosciutto and caviar hors d’oeuvres as they made history aboard the first of 20 sleek new trains that will barrel along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor at speeds approaching those of trains in Japan, France and elsewhere.

“Today’s inaugural run symbolizes the beginning of a new era of American transportation,” Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said at a kickoff ceremony in Washington.

Just the Beginning

Regular service on the train begins Dec. 11 in the Northeast. Legislation pending in Congress would help Amtrak raise $10 billion over 10 years to construct other high-speed corridors around the nation.

A nationwide system of high-speed rail would require billions of public dollars to lay new track, straighten curves, eliminate highway crossings and perform other upgrades of the nation’s rail network.

“This is all about money,” said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the Amtrak chairman. He said the federal government gives short shrift to railroads compared with its spending on highways and air travel.

“You get what you pay for,” Thompson said.

Amtrak received the first of 20 eight-car train sets last month from the consortium building Acela Express — Canada’s Bombardier Transportation and France’s Alstom Ltd. All 20 trains should be in service by next summer.

Problems with the tilt technology that helps speed the train through curves, along with premature wheel wear, forced a delay in plans to begin Acela Express in October 1999.

Acela Express will cut about a half-hour off the current Metroliner service between Washington and New York and about 45 minutes off the New York-to-Boston trip.

Historic Turns on the Rail

The 300 passengers invited for Thursday’s inaugural run first enjoyed breakfast inside a stately restaurant in Washington’s Union Station that once served as a VIP suite for presidents and other dignitaries preparing to ride the great trains of America’s past.

“We gather in the same place this morning to prepare to ride the great train of the future, Acela,” said John Robert Smith, the mayor of Meridian, Miss., and member of Amtrak’s governing board.

Thompson christened the train by shattering a bottle of California champagne on its tapered nose.

On board, passengers quickly remarked about the spacious restrooms, overhead luggage bins, oversized windows and brightly colored blue-and-purple seats. The cafe car includes bar stools and, once regular service begins, will serve beer on tap.

Acela Express pulled out of Washington just before 10 a.m. It hit 135 mph through a portion of New Jersey, a record for the Washington-to-New York corridor. The train arrived at New York’s Penn Station in two hours and 26 minutes — two minutes ahead of schedule.

“We deliver!” Thompson said emphatically to the crowd gathered to welcome the train.

Among those greeting Acela Express passengers in New York were Gov. George Pataki, former New York Mets star Keith Hernandez, actor Henry Winkler and cast members from the Broadway show Fosse, who stuck to the railroad theme by performing the song “Steam Heat.”

Winkler said he became a fan of high-speed trains during a trip several years ago to Japan. Hernandez said that when the Mets traveled to Philadelphia for games with the Phillies, he would take Amtrak while his teammates traveled on a team bus.

“I got there in an hour 20 minutes. They were still on the New Jersey Turnpike,” Hernandez said.

Dr. Ruth Weighs Sex Appeal

Shortly before the train left New York for its beeline to Boston, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer hopped aboard to say hello to Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and presidential nominee who is now Amtrak’s vice chairman.

“I think it’s a very sexy train,” she said. “Maybe you can walk around and find a partner here. Those of you who don’t have partners …”

“… find them on Acela,” Dukakis finished.

The day’s highlight came at 4:18 p.m. A palpable surge near Kingston, R.I., brought the train to its top speed of 150 mph, faster than any train in Amtrak’s 29-year history.

Amtrak employees had distributed glasses of champagne in preparation for the big moment. “Congratulations, and let’s toast,” Walt Peters, Amtrak’s chief scheduler, said over the loudspeaker as passengers applauded.

The train arrived in Boston — two minutes early, again, after a three-hour, 13-minute ride from New York — and was greeted by fireworks shot from the top of South Station.

“This is the future,” Dukakis told several hundred people gathered to greet the train. “We’ve seen it.”