Amtrack Tests High-Tech Train Travel of the Future

AMTRACK'S new X2000 passenger train may succeed in putting high-speed trains on United States tracks.

A test version of the Swedish-designed X2000 swept out of snowy Philadelphia last week, showing off its agility through some of the tightest curves on the old Pennsylvania Railroad. The train's ability to tilt around a bend allows it to go 40 to 60 percent faster on curves than conventional trains.

Unlike the magnetic-levitation (Maglev) high-speed train proposals being considered in Florida and California and the French-style train a grande vitesse (TGV) project in Texas, X2000 trains run on existing tracks. Projects using Maglev and TGV technology require all-new, relatively straight tracks that are estimated to cost several billion dollars for most routes.

During a test run from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Penn., last week, the X2000 traveled at 100 miles per hour around curves that limit regular trains to 75 m.p.h. The tilt around curves was almost imperceptible.

The X2000's amenities are more similar to those of corporate jets than the creaking and groaning railcars Amtrack now uses. Each seat on the X2000 has a stereo headphone, hookups for computers, dining trays of Swedish pear wood, and large picture windows to watch the countryside whistle by. The trains also feature faxes and conference rooms for business meetings en route.

Beginning in February, a version of the X2000 train will substitute for normal Metroliner trains running between New York and Washington to find out what passengers think of the design. The target date for rollout of a full complement of high-speed trains is 1997 for the entire Boston-to-Washington corridor.

Amtrack predicts that the X2000 will allow it to win over passengers who now fly between Washington, New York, and Boston. By trimming the Boston-to-New York trip from just over four hours to just under three, Amtrack expects to grab an additional 30 percent of the combined air-rail market, says R. Clifford Black, an Amtrack spokesman.

When Swedish State Railways first introduced the X2000 on the 283-mile Gothenburg-to-Stockholm route in 1990, rail had 38 percent of the total air-rail passenger traffic, with 62 percent carried by airlines, says Joseph Silien, director of business development for the Swiss-Swedish firm Asea Brown Boveri (ABB), which designed the X2000. As of this year, trains are carrying 52 percent of all travelers compared to the airlines' 48-percent share.

Amtrack and ABB have estimated that the average travel time for the Northeast corridor can be increased from 79 m.p.h. to close to 100 m.p.h. using X2000 technology. If Amtrack orders the trains, they will be built in an Elmira Heights, N.Y. plant owned by ABB. Lutz Elsner, president of that subsidiary, says the 26 trainsets (a cab and five cars including a bistro car) would cost between $400 million and $500 million.

Amtrack's $1.3 billion Northeast High-Speed Rail project includes funds to buy new passenger trains. The project also includes electrification of the New Haven, Conn.-to-Boston section of the trip, which now requires trains to change over to diesel locomotives. Of 9 million travelers on the Northeast corridor each year, 2 million take Amtrack.

Transportation officials in many US states, as well as in Canada, are watching the X2000 tests on the Northeast corridor. ABB officials say the X2000 would perform well on a Los Angeles to San Diego route, or for travel between Chicago and the cities of St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee, Wis.

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