Test of high-speed `tilt' trains brings out the pols and press

It was a curious mix of national politics and international business competition as reporters and cameramen scurried after a presidential hopeful, and onto a high-speed Canadian ``tilt'' train. The big draw was not the sleek new train that ``leans'' into curves on the track, but Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who clambered in and out of a tight doorway on the diesel locomotive so a gaggle of photographers and television cameras could catch him in just the right pose.

That was Wednesday in Boston. But 45 miles and 32 minutes later in Providence, Mr. Dukakis did the whole thing all over again for a different bunch.

After a quick speech, Dukakis and reporters hurtled back to Boston on a competing Spanish-built train with different tilting technology, but which was equally fast: about 87 miles an hour on average, with the top speed hitting 100 m.p.h. The trains can go 125 m.p.h.

Though even regular Amtrak trains could take curves safely at higher speeds than they do, the passenger cars do not lean into turns, so they must slow down to avoid throwing passengers to one side. A normal train run (without any stops) between Boston and Providence is 45 instead of 32 minutes.

The 13-minute difference may not sound significant. But the point of the demonstration was to show the feasibility of traveling from Boston to New York in three hours compared with the 4-hour, 45-minute trip on Amtrak today.

``We could make a serious dent in airline traffic between New York and Boston and save billions on airports,'' says David Jones, director at large of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. ``Three hours from downtown to downtown is as fast or faster than business people can do flying.''

Dukakis and a coalition of governors from Northeastern states think a relatively cheap investment in tilt technology could put off having to expand airports or build new ones. Tilt technology, which can use today's locomotives and track, is thought also to be a thrifty alternative to even higher-speed Japanese or French trains, traveling 160 m.p.h. or more. Such non-tilting trains would require a much larger investment in new, ultra-straight and smooth stretches of track that could cost billions.

Dukakis took time in Providence to plump for the new technology and criticize the Reagan administration. He described a prospective $200 million, 10-year lease-purchase arrangement for the tilt trains as a ``very, very modest investment for what could be and should be a profitable [Amtrak] service,'' Dukakis said. ``One of the reasons our airports are so overburdened is that we have been spending the last eight years without a national transportation policy.''

Any action here in the Northeast rail corridor will also set precedent for other areas of the country, says Luther Miller, editor of Railway Age, an industry magazine. ``The whole country is beginning to turn back to trains,'' he says. ``The question is, what can they afford?'' Some very expensive, very high-speed rail options have been weighed by states such as Texas, Florida, and California in recent years.

Following several highly publicized passenger train accidents in recent years, safety has become an even larger concern for such projects. Joseph Walsh, associate administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, says his agency is running high-speed tests of the tilt trains at night through July and after Labor Day to check stability and performance of the cars.

``We're just as much responsible for passenger safety inside the car as we are for keeping the wheels on the track,'' he said.

Meanwhile, executives of the Canadian and Spanish companies were huddled in their respective pin-striped groups to discuss the chances their train would prevail. Officials from both companies - Canada's Bombardier and Spain's Renfe-Talgo Group - know their best chance to sell their product is if Dukakis is elected.

``It is an important step for us,'' says Julian Garc'ia-Valverde, chairman of Renfe, Spain's national railway board. ``We are not satisfied with running our trains to the rest of Europe. We want to sell them to European nations and here in the United States.''

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