High-speed train might be last bullet in Amtrak's arsenal

The number on the witch's nose of the new train is telling: 2001.

While it's not exactly a space odyssey, the train does represent perhaps the ultimate test of whether high-speed rail travel will make it in the United States.

For years, everyone from local governments to business executives to rail enthusiasts has looked at the bullet trains skittering across Europe and Japan and longed for a similar network here.

Now, a series of sleek new trains being tested along a well-used corridor in the Northeast will determine whether Americans indeed are ready to forgo their cultural affinity for cars and planes to travel more by rail.

This spring, 20 Acela trains are due to start whizzing passengers between Boston and Washington at speeds up to 150 m.p.h. - the fastest ever in the United States, but 30 m.p.h. slower than trains in Europe and Japan. The gambit by Amtrak will not only impact the future of high-speed rail, but will likely determine whether the US can maintain a national rail passenger system at all.

"I've always been a strong supporter of Amtrak, but I am deeply concerned they won't reach their legal obligation," says Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, referring to a congressional mandate that Amtrak wean itself from $300 million in annual federal subsidies by 2003. "If it succeeds, and produces profit, maybe we can find a way to give them some breathing room."

If high-speed rail can pay its own way anywhere in this country, it should be in the heavily populated Northeast. Here amid the beehive of cities that hug the coast, trains and planes already split commuter traffic evenly.

Amtrak officials expect the new train service to bring in an extra $180 million a year. To do so, they will have to attract more customers like Suresh Ramakrishnan, an investment banker who rides the rails between New York and Philadelphia several times a month.

Waiting in line at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, he says he prefers rail to air because, on the train, "I can get some work done."

There are no takeoff and landing restrictions on the use of electronics on trains. Amtrak is banking on other amenities to entice a cyberage populace as well: laptop plug-ins at each seat and conference table, public phones, and homey bathrooms - complete with baby-changing tables.

Mr. Ramakrishnan's time saving from the old train will be about 15 minutes each way, bringing the trip down to 1 hour. From Boston to New York, the Acela will take 3 hours, down from 5. Tickets will cost $130 each way, compared with the $200 price tag of a typical shuttle flight.

"It's a lucrative market, so it's not just a matter of Amtrak walking in and saying, 'We're here with Acela, we're going to get all your business," says Tom Till, head of the Amtrak Reform Council, set up to make independent recommendations to Amtrak and to Congress. "They've got to earn it."

Testing a faster train

Before it can do anything, Amtrak will have to make sure the trains run smoothly. The launch, originally scheduled for this fall, has already been delayed once because tests showed the wheels were wearing out too quickly.

The Acela will run on existing tracks. Unlike bullet trains in Europe and Japan, Amtrak is sacrificing some velocity to avoid the cost of building new, less-curvy rails. During recent speed tests in Rhode Island and New Jersey, the Acela topped 168 m.p.h., fast enough to blow over some television cameras there to capture the moment. The train is designed to take curves at high speeds without making passengers feel as if they're tilting.

But much of the testing is less glamorous. Sitting at a Philadelphia yard near a few office trailers, the train recently underwent "static" tests of everything from space-age consoles to complex braking systems - often at speeds of 7 m.p.h.

Unlike their diesel predecessors, the trains run on electricity. The train also has a unique braking system. "It actually throws voltage that it has in the train back up into the line," says Gary Carnes, an engineer with ALSTOM, the French designer of the Acela. "It recycles that energy ... instead of just burning it off."

While the brakes may be unusual, that doesn't mean the Acela can stop on a dime or even a nickel. At 150 m.p.h., it requires 1.7 miles to brake in an emergency. All of which means the train is requiring new training for engineers. The bulk of this is being done in a special motion simulator in Wilmington, Del. "It does feel different - you have to start thinking that much faster," says Jay Gilifillan, who has driven trains for 25 years.

Locomotive on a screen

He and Mark Burris have been developing scenarios for Acela training, with the help of the largest computer-graphics imaging system in the world. In a replica of the locomotive, Mr. Gilifillan demonstrates the run from Washington to Baltimore. Meanwhile, Mr. Burris sits in front of a row of computers, plugging in a range of conditions: bumps of rough track, thick fog, the crack of thunder.

On this run, the only living thing that appears on the tracks is a deer. But trainees will also confront people on the tracks and other emergency scenarios.

To address safety concerns, Amtrak is closing a number of crossings, upgrading its signal system, and bolstering an educational campaign.

Some transportation analysts see little hope for high-speed rail outside this region, even if it does well here. "High-speed rail will never pay for itself," says Peter Furth, a transportation expert at Northeastern University in Boston. He believes America's suburban lifestyle will continue to make cars commuters' first choice.

Still, explorations of high-speed rail are proliferating. For example, a Pacific Northwest corridor would connect Eugene, Ore.; Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia. In the Midwest, faster trains would run from Chicago to nine cities, including St. Louis and Detroit.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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