An Acela story.
- Don Phillips who also writes for the Washington Post, wrote a great article
on Amtrak's new Acela. Dawson
Here's Acela; what about the Corridor?
Source: Trains Magazine
Publication date: 2000-12-01
Arrival time: 2000-12-02
I KNOW IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE, but by the time you read this, Amtrak's new
higher-speed trains will probably be running between Washington and Boston.
The latest unofficial deadline for startup of one Washington-Boston round
trip is October. 29, with the fall timetable change.
Of course with Amtrak's record of false starts, anything could happen. But
even insiders who know what's happening have made the transition from
skepticism to near-enthusiasm.
Everyone must know by now that 10 to 20 minutes has been added to the
train's promised three-hour Boston New York trip time, at least for a while.
But later on, sources say Amtrak will try some scheduling showmanship,
including a 2 hour, 28-minute Washington-New York nonstop train. However,
the train cannot run any faster than 135 mph south of New York until someone
comes up with billions of dollars for major improvements, including
"constant tension" catenary (see the last third of this column). Amtrak
calls these trains Acela Express-Acela for "acceleration" and "excellence,"
and Express to separate it from the other Acelas out there. Few things have
caused more confusion lately than Amtrak's "branding"-dubbing a fixed-up
Amfleet consist "Acela Regional." And just wait 'til someone gets aboard a
New York-Philadelphia Clocker thinking it's a high-speed train because
Amtrak calls it Acela Commuter. Strange.
Regular readers also know my feelings about the name Acela, but Amtrak
management is stubbornly clinging to its silly decision. Therefore, I guess
I'll have to give in and call it by, er, that name. Don't think for a minute
that my surrender amounts to acceptance.
Within a few months, we'll know whether the Express will be as wildly
popular as the first Metroliner. That rough-riding, breakdown- prone
creature of the late 1960's probably saved the passenger train because
people accepted it as the wave of the future and simply ignored its many
If Acela runs reliably, it can have an even greater positive effect on
passenger service because it has already proved it rides smoothly and
quietly, and could easily do better than its artificial 150-mph limit.
I've ridden test trains several times, and trust me, it's better than its
name. But it's making its debut in a different era than the Metroliner. In
the late 1960's, people trusted government far more than they do now. Even
with the Vietnam War, the dogs-and-firehoses of the civil rights movement,
and race riots, I still felt a public enthusiasm for the future. The
Metroliner appeared on the scene at a time when "Watergate" was just a plush
apartment building, and young reporters did not have a Woodward and
Bernstein complex. Reporters didn't even report on presidential sexual
escapades in that era.
Just like presidents, the Metroliner got a break from the news media. In
fact, it got almost a folk-hero greeting. It was "our" way of thumbing our
nose at the Japanese and "their" Shinkansen. The Metroliner gave us a chance
to say our technology was just as good as the Japanese (even if it wasn't).
But the Acela Express is appearing at a time of political nastiness in our
country, and reporters approach stories with a level of skepticism that
often spills over into cynicism. After the inevitable initial hoopla, the
Express will have to perform (with a capital "P") to gain long-term positive
public reaction and coverage from the press. There will be no breaks.
Assuming Acela Express passes the test (and I think all it has to do is
consistently run on time with almost no breakdowns), another problem arises.
In researching Acela Express articles for my newspaper, I've come to the
gradual realization that the Northeast Corridor today isn't worthy of the
We all "knew" that a lot of work would have to be done between New York and
Washington someday. But I for one didn't realize the depth of deferred
maintenance and capital starvation. Things are bad and getting worse.
Try this: Amtrak is annually spending $130,000 per track-mile on Corridor
maintenance and capital. Eastern commuter carriers spend $247,000 per
track-mile on the routes they own, where trains run at lower speeds. In an
understatement, Amtrak's January 2000 "South End Transportation Plan" said
this is "not sustainable."
The high bridge over the Susquehanna River at Perryville, Md., is near the
end of its service life and must be replaced. The Baltimore tunnels were
built just a few years after the Civil War, and are slow- speed, waterlogged
rat holes. The best anyone can hope for is perhaps 30 years before the
tunnels are no longer useable.
Luckily, the Pennsylvania Railroad bought property and underground rights
for a new Baltimore tunnel, and those precious rights conveyed to Amtrak.
[In fact, if the Pennsy had not rebuilt the Corridor in the late 1920's and
early '30's, the Metroliner probably would have never existed, and there
might never have been an Amtrak. Raise a glass to the Pennsy tonight-we're
still living on "standard railroad of the world" foresight.]
The Amtrak report noted a 1966 study had identified $2.5 billion in deferred
maintenance. That's four to five years of Amtrak's entire federal budget.
Just achieving "threshold operational reliability" (returning to normal
upkeep of track, structures, signals, and catenary) will require $183
million a year for 15 years. This is to merely stop deterioration. Another
$50 million a year is needed to chip away at the backlog of deferred work.
None of this includes major tunnel, bridge, or track projects.
Over 25 years, Amtrak's South End plan contemplates a need for $12 billion
(in 2000 dollars, adjusted for inflation). Rather than political posturing
and speeches about "high-speed rail," someone needs to get serious about
where the money will come from. I believe it's called putting your money
where your mouth is. .
DON PHILLIPS writes this exclusive monthly column for TRAINS and covers
transportation for the Washington Post.
Copyright Kalmbach Publishing Company Dec 2000
Publication date: 2000-12-01
© 2000, YellowBrix, Inc.