Call it "The Big Engine That Could."
When North America's first high-speed train begins daily service today between Washington and Boston, it carries with it perhaps the final hopes of an industry in trouble.
Since 1971, Amtrak has spent $23 billion in federal money in a largely unsuccessful bid to fulfill a decades-old quest: to unite America by rail. Ever since the Golden Spike marked the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the United States has harbored dreams of an efficient, nationwide rail system.
Now, Amtrak officials see the launch of the Acela Express as a 21st-century Golden Spike, heralding a promising niche for trains as a way to alleviate gridlock on highways and "winglock" at airports.
"It's a new dawn in America for high-speed trains," says Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, Amtrak chairman. The Acela, he says, "will revitalize the travel industry."
To be sure, there is interest in the idea of high-speed trains across the US. Similar lines have been suggested between Chicago and Milwaukee, as well as Los Angeles and San Francisco. And last month, Florida voters amended their constitution to mandate high-speed rail.
A $10 billion, 10-year high-speed-rail bond initiative now before Congress would help to fund proposed high-speed rail corridors in all these areas.
That cash is badly needed, says Amtrak president George Warrington, if the US is going to compete with Europe and Japan in creating a speed-rail network.
"It's a failure of public policy to invest in the third leg [of transportation]," he says. "We have a highway system that's fully developed, and an airline system that's fully developed, and rightly so."
Today, officials hope, will be the first day in a "new era" for trains.
In the Northeast, service is beginning with one Acela Express train a day in each direction. Eventually, there will be 19 round trips daily. A one-way ticket from Washington to New York costs $143 for business class, $217 for first class. From New York to Boston, one-way fares range from $120 to $187. By contrast, a one-way walkup fare on the New York-Boston airplane shuttle costs $202.50.
Trouble on the rails
This first run has been a longtime coming. Amtrak has been looking to Acela to provide money and momentum heading into 2002, when Congress will stop subsidizing the company. The needs are great: Last year, for example, Amtrak had its highest ridership ever, yet it still lost $520 million.
The Acela, too, has stumbled. It was scheduled to begin service a year ago but suffered several delays because of technical problems and clashes with the manufacturer.
Not all the the signs have been bad, though. Despite the persistent deficits, the fact that Amtrak ridership is up is certainly positive. "It suddenly just exploded," says former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Amtrak's vice chairman. "Airports are dysfunctional. Highways don't work. Gas prices increased. It's a whole sea change."
Moreover, most reviews of Acela (pronounced ah-CEL-ah, combining "acceleration" and "excellence") have been sparkling. Its sleek blue-and-silver engine looks decidedly futuristic. Tilt technology allows the train to hit speeds of 150 m.p.h. on swervy tracks made for slower trains. And amenities abound.
Wide seats feature adjustable back rests and enough legroom to keep a basketball player happy. Large tray tables were designed to hold a laptop, which can be plugged into an electrical outlet at each seat. Sizable restrooms include backlit mirrors and changing tables. And instead of the usual noisy clickety-clack, a quiet hum prevails.
Stations, too, are undergoing a transformation. Already ridership has increased at Route 128 in suburban Boston, where a new, multimillion-dollar station and parking garage replace a caboose-shaped station and a potholed lot.
Stations in Philadelphia; Wilmington, Del.; Baltimore; Washington; and Providence, R.I.; have also undergone "a lot of work," says Ellen Taylor, director of station planning. The changes include better lighting on platforms and grander waiting areas with views of the trains.
Be our guest
Then there are the semantic changes. Don't think of yourself as a customer or a passenger. Instead, Taylor says, "You are our guest."
But even a guest might occasionally be dissatisfied. To soothe any discontent, Amtrak is offering a satisfaction-guarantee program. As Ms. Taylor explains, "It's much cheaper to retain customers than to ... get new ones."
Calling this "definitely a new philosophy," she adds, "We're working very hard to change the mentality the company used to have."
In the past, she says, "We operated trains. People got on and off the train, and that was the end of it. Today, that's not a viable philosophy in terms of operating a good business."
The new philosophy: "We are a customer-service company that operates trains."
Among passengers riding from New York to Boston on the inaugural run of the Acela Express last month, enthusiasm runs high.
"This is a phenomenal train," says Ed Kramer, president of Kramer Fun Tours in Portage, Wis. "There are a lot of people who want good train service and are ready to go that way."
Mr. Kramer leads four or five train tours a year. On a recent one-day trip to Chicago, 37 of the 41 participants had never traveled by train before.
Amtrak president Warrington is confident than new riders will become converts. "This is the safest high-speed train in the world by any measure, by any standards," he says. "Safety and travel time will make this a powerhouse in transportation. When you add up price, service, amenities, and frequency, it's a winner."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society