Originally created 03/10/99

Amtrak takes wraps off new high-speed service



NEW YORK -- Amtrak took the wraps off the nation's first high-speed rail system today, a $2 billion service that will race between Boston, New York and Washington at 150 mph.

The long-awaited new trains will start running in October along tracks that Amtrak currently uses for its Northeast Corridor service. They have been dubbed "Acela" (uh-SELL-ah), a word made up by a marketing firm to indicate swiftness.

By electrifying the entire 470-mile route, straightening curves and using 20 new train sets that incorporate the so-called tilt technology, Amtrak hopes to chop as much as 90 minutes off its 4 1/2 -hour Boston-New York service and up to a half-hour off its current three-hour Washington-New York service.

With trip times down to 2 1/2 to three hours, Amtrak is betting much of its future -- and that of high-speed rail in the United States -- on the premise that it can now compete with airplanes and automobiles on city center-to-city center trips.

As added incentives, the fare will be about 30 percent less than the current $199 walk-up air shuttle rate, and Amtrak will expand some of its current amenities. In addition to offering 304 business-class seats, the trains will have audio entertainment and power outlets at each seat, enclosed overhead bins, a dining car and full lavatories.

Amtrak views the Northeast Corridor as a model for other high-speed rail proposals in the Great Lakes region, along the Southeast and Gulf Coast and throughout California and the Pacific Northwest.

"Acela is more than just a name for Amtrak's new high-speed trains. Acela is a brand representing a whole new way of doing business," Amtrak President George Warrington said in a statement.

The unveiling took place near Amtrak's New York headquarters before a group of 1,000 company employees. The railroad is hoping that the workers will spread their enthusiasm to passengers before the service begins this fall.

Outsiders also hope Acela will finally convince America to follow Europe's lead toward a transportation system that offers an alternative to congested highways and crowded airport terminals.

"It provides a reasonable and perhaps better third option for travel in the area," said Anne Chettle, spokeswoman for the High-Speed Ground Transportation Association, a Washington rail organization.

"The train is already popular in the Northeast. In other areas of the country, they are committed to their cars or airplanes. This way trains will seem less pie-in-the-sky to them," Chettle said.

Amtrak has not turned a profit since it was founded in 1971. The General Accounting Office reported that the railroad lost an average of $47 per passenger in fiscal 1997.

In 1997, Congress said Amtrak must become self-sufficient by 2002. It provided a $2.2 billion cash infusion and a steadily declining annual subsidy that ends in three years.

Last year the railroad topped $1 billion in revenues for the first time, propelled by the best ridership in a decade and its best on-time performance in 13 years. It views high-speed rail as the final piece of its move toward profitability.

Amtrak currently transports about 9 million people each year along the Northeast Corridor, some 7 million between New York and Washington and an additional 2 million between New York and Boston.

There will be a minimum time-savings with the upgraded service between Washington and New York because that route already is electrified. The Achilles heel of the Boston-to-New York service, however, has been the requirement that diesel trains switch to electric locomotives for air quality reasons before completing the trip into New York City.

That adds about a half-hour to the journey.

In recent years, Amtrak has spent millions improving the track and adding electrical service from New Haven to Boston. It has also spent $710 million on new train sets that are modeled after the French bullet train, the TGV.

While not as fast as the 185-mph TGV, the new Amtrak trains will glide around corners using technology that gently tilts the cars. That doesn't promote speed as much as it prevents centrifugal force from throwing the passengers into a car's walls.

The track electrification, a project started in 1906 but halted by world wars, the Depression and other events, will allow seamless service along the entire route.