Amtrak launches daily service on first high-speed train

By LAURENCE ARNOLD

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Carrying commuters and curiosity-seekers, Amtrak’s first high-speed train sped through eight Northeastern states today on a trip that launched daily service and raised hopes for rejuvenating rail travel in America.

“It’s about time that advanced railway technology came to this country. The Europeans and Japanese have been doing this for years,” said railroad buff Paul McCarthy of Stoughton, Mass., who took a day off from his job as a respiratory therapist to watch the train arrive at Boston’s South Station.

Amtrak’s snub-nosed Acela Express train, which hits top speed of 150 mph and seats 304, had 114 people on board when it left Washington’s Union Station at 5 a.m.

The train stopped in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey before arriving at New York’s Penn Station at 7:47 a.m. Though three minutes behind schedule, the three-hour, 47-minute ride was 13 minutes faster than the standard trip of the Metroliner, which Acela Express is replacing.

The train made stops in Connecticut and Rhode Island before reaching South Station at 11:41 a.m., 10 minutes late, after a ride of three hours, 38 minutes from New York – about 80 minutes faster than a similar trip a year ago.

In all, the train covered 457 miles and made 12 stops. It was retracing its path back to Washington late this afternoon.

“This is a special day,” said Amtrak President George Warrington, who rode the train from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to New York. “It took us a long time to get here, and it took us a long time to get America here.”

The eight-car train is the first of 20 that Amtrak is receiving from Bombardier Transportation of Canada and Alstom Ltd. of France. Acela Express incorporates the electric propulsion system of the French TGV, manufactured by Alstom, with Bombardier’s advanced tilt technology, which allows the train to take curves at higher speeds.

All 20 Acela Express trains are scheduled to be operating by next summer. If they prove popular in the Northeast, Amtrak hopes to offer high-speed service elsewhere. The top speed for most passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor is 79 mph.

The high-speed rail service, America’s first, was supposed to begin in October 1999, but problems with the tilt technology and premature wheel wear forced delays.

Amtrak, which has received $23 billion in federal operating subsidies since its inception in 1971, is under orders from Congress to become financially self-sufficient by 2003. High-speed rail plays prominently in its survival plans.

The Acela Express train features 32 conference tables spread throughout its passenger cars, video news programming, pub-style cafe cars with expanded menus and three audio music channels with headphone outlets at each seat. First-class passengers can have meals delivered to their seats.

The inaugural was not glitch-free.

Transit officials in New Jersey said the Acela Express train helped make 17 New York-bound trains up to 20 minutes late during the morning commute. On at least one NJ Transit train, an announcement notified passengers that the delay was due to Acela Express – not exactly the buzz Amtrak officials were hoping to create.

Amtrak spokesman Rick Remington said the problem stemmed from a delay in Trenton, where several minutes were required to sort out Acela Express passengers from other commuters on a crowded platform.

On board, complaints were few. For Deanna Banks, vice president of an executive search firm, large bathrooms and roomy seats in first class were a pleasant surprise: the Woodbridge, Va., resident is seven months pregnant.

“I got from DC to New York for a 9 a.m. meeting,” she marveled. “So on day one, it served me well.”

The history-making trip drew a mix of business travelers and train lovers.

“It was my birthday today so I decided to treat myself in style,” said Randolph Becker, a minister from Williamsburg, Va., who rode the train from start to end. “It was fabulous, much faster, and the windows are much larger. You get a great view.”

A one-way coach ticket between Washington and New York is $143 on Acela Express, compared with $122 on the Metroliner. A one-way Acela Express coach ticket between Boston and New York is $120, compared with $57 on conventional Amtrak trains.

Amtrak officials say the fares are competitive with the $202 walk-up fare offered by Delta and US Airways shuttles.

McCarthy, the rail fan who took a day off to see the train in Boston, sounded less convinced.

“The cost is prohibitive,” he said. “This is not meant for the blue-collar worker like myself.”

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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