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An Acela story.

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  • Ronald Dawson
    Don Phillips who also writes for the Washington Post, wrote a great article on Amtrak s new Acela. Dawson DepotNews.com NewsWire Here s Acela; what
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 2, 2000
      Don Phillips who also writes for the Washington Post, wrote a great article
      on Amtrak's new Acela. Dawson

      DepotNews.com NewsWire

      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
      faults.

      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
      train.

      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.
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