WASHINGTON -- Amtrak says its new high-speed Acela train has already set a national speed record of 168 mph, but a nagging question remains: When will passengers be able to come aboard?
There's still no clear resolution to wheel problems that have plagued the train in tests, and the precise start-up date is unclear.
Montreal-based Bombardier Inc., which is building the train with Alstom of Paris, says it will announce a timetable by the end of the month, as promised when it divulged on Sept. 1 that the train's wheels were wearing prematurely.
"We're aiming at spring of 2000," Bombardier spokesman Gilles Paget said Tuesday.
On Monday, the second production silver-and-turqoise Acela train hit 168 mph between the Rhode Island cities of Warwick and Kingston during a test of new lines that will provide electricity to the train.
Amtrak said that was a U.S. record for a passenger train operating on a regular track. The previous record was nearly 160 mph, set decades ago when Penn Central was testing Amtrak's then-new Metroliner trains.
"It was a milestone," said Amtrak spokesman Russ Hall. "There was a lot of shaking of hands and pats on the back."
While the first production Acela model has also hit 168 mph since March on closed loop of test track in Pueblo, Colo., this week's record represented another step toward high-speed rail in the United States.
The trains are slated to carry passengers at up to 160 mph, and when they do, it will lead to three-hour service between Boston and New York and 2 hour, 45 minute service between New York and Washington -- a savings of up to 90 minutes and more competitive with airline shuttle service.
Amtrak is hoping that Acela will not only generate $180 million in new profits annually, but that the cash infusion will allow the national railroad to fulfill its promise to Congress of self-sufficiency by 2002. Since 1971, it has required federal subsidies of $23 billion.
Amtrak is also hoping that success in the Northeast Corridor will spur creation of similar service in the South, Midwest, Gulf Coast, California and Pacific Northwest.
Amtrak had planned to run its first high-speed train in November or December, but in September it said the date had been pushed back to next spring. It promised a clearer timetable within 60 days, and Paget said the train makers will meet that deadline.
Asked whether the problems had been resolved, he said: "We're testing components and we're quite optimistic that we'll be able to set the new delivery schedule."