Is Amtrak's Fast Train Plan On Fast Track to Nowhere?

Passenger railway hopes to save Northeast project from GOP cuts

PICTURE a state-of-the-art business center with fax machine, photocopier, and other amenities. A lounge with low- and high-stool seating for informal gatherings. And audio and video entertainment for relaxation.

Amtrak wants to buy 24 trains with these and other contemporary features for its Washington-Boston route. Capable of traveling 150 miles per hour, they would replace aging Metroliners on the Washington-New York leg and Northeast Express trains that travel from Boston to New York. The new trains would compete with airline shuttles and help reduce traffic near airports and on highways.

But Congress could derail not only the railroad's plans but also the carrier itself. The Northeast High Speed Rail Improvement Project has been listed for possible elimination as part of congressional budget-cutting efforts. The Senate GOP proposes phasing out Amtrak operating grants; House Republicans propose phasing out capital subsidies as well.

Chris Krese, spokesman for House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member William Clinger (R) of Pennsylvania, says the program's funding is in ''wait and see'' mode. The committee will address the matter this month; the full House, in July.

But David Carol, the project's vice president, says: ''We're optimistic Congress will retain sufficient funding. This is the most complex procurement Amtrak's ever undertaken.''

Thus far, $712,000 has been appropriated for the estimated $1.7 billion project, which also includes purchase of two diesel- or turbine-powered trains for tests and demonstrations. A billion dollars is needed for New York-Boston infrastructure; $650 million would buy and maintain all new trains.

Amtrak expects the trains will make rail travel more competitive with air travel for these reasons:

* Speed. The trains are 25 m.p.h. or more faster than Metroliners. Washington-New York rail travel takes 2 hours, 50 minutes, but high-speed trains could make it 20 minutes quicker. The northern trip takes 4-1/4 hours because curves force trains to go only 90-100 m.p.h.; new trains could do it in 2 hours, 55 minutes.

Planes complete the routes in one hour each. But getting to and from airports can take just as long because of traffic, Mr. Carol says.

High-speed trains would help relieve highway congestion, adds William Lochte, a marketing-sales director for Bombardier Inc., a train manufacturer headquartered in Montreal. ''One set of railroad tracks is equivalent to 11 lanes of highway,'' he says. ''We need to reengineer our thinking, as 62 cents on the dollar is invested ... in highways but only one cent in rail transit.''

* Amenities. The updated trains would feature increased crash resistance; greater handicapped accessibility, a smoother ride, more comfortable seating; bigger windows; better quality food (with sit-down and dining-car service); and radio and video entertainment.

For business travelers -- who account for up to 80 percent of shuttle passengers -- the trains would be offices on wheels, with phones, computer hookups, and a conference room.

Carol estimates that train travel's share of the New York-Boston air-rail market would increase from 15 percent to 55 percent with the faster rail. It already accounts for 45 percent of the southern market. The Amtrak official says he expects New York-Boston ridership to jump from 2 million to 5 million. Just over 3 million travel both routes by air annually. A train ticket will likely still cost about two-thirds as much as shuttle airfare -- for express, nonexpress, coach, and club services.

But the Northeast Corridor presents special problems.

The New Haven (Conn.)-Boston section needs electrification. This three-year $350 million project would begin in October. Electrification poses challenges in the way of low clearances, public resistance to more overhead wires, severe weather, movable bridges, diverse bridge ownership, and Boston's Central Artery Project, says John Popoff, project electrification director.

Second, the route is not straight. Train manufacturers are incorporating into the engineering ''tilt technology,'' which enables trains to go 40 percent faster around curves and save up to 10 minutes per trip. Nonetheless, the speedy trains will be up to the task, Mr. Popoff says.

The American Flyer, made by Bombardier and GEC Alsthom of France, is one of three proposals Amtrak is considering buying. The others come from Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) Traction Inc. of Elmira, N.Y., and Hi-Speed America consortium led by Siemens Corporation of New York.

The Flyer, for example, is modeled after the 186 m.p.h. train a grande vitesse (TGV), Mr. Lochte says. Bombardier has built almost 300 trains for Amtrak in the past. Its American manufacturing plants are in Vermont and New York.

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