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Recent Rail Rambles

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  • Ronald Dawson
    From http://www.trolleycar.org/observations/lind010612.htm Dawson By William S. Lind June 12, 2001 Recent Rail Rambles I had business in Boston on Saturday,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 22, 2001
      From http://www.trolleycar.org/observations/lind010612.htm Dawson

      By William S. Lind
      June 12, 2001

      Recent Rail Rambles

      I had business in Boston on Saturday, June 9 (the Vintage Trolleys committee
      meeting at APTA's annual rail conference), so I decided to update my Acela
      experience by taking Amtrak's new train all the way. Since I wanted some
      time in Boston on the 8th to visit my tobacconist (Ehrlich's on Tremont
      Street; I've smoked their D.P.E. pipe mixture for 30 years), that meant
      getting the 5 AM departure from Washington; the only other through Acela
      leaves D.C. at 3 PM (weekdays) and gets into Beantown at 9:31 in the

      Not surprisingly, at 5 in the morning I had few traveling companions. Part
      of the problem with such an early departure is that Washington's Metro, like
      most subway systems nowadays, offers no owl service. That meant a cab, which
      even from close-in Alexandria cost $20 compared to a $2.05 rush-hour Metro
      fare. On the other hand, the rail fare was less than I expected: $162
      one-way, business class (which really means coach on Acela).

      So how was the trip? On the whole, quite pleasant. The seats were
      comfortable, the big windows offered wonderful views of the New England
      coast and we were almost on time into Boston. Unlike my first Acela trip
      last November, on this train the tilt mechanism was engaged and it made a
      big difference. Even at Acela's higher speed, curves were almost unnoticed
      (returning on Amfleet, I felt them far more strongly).

      Acela hits its 150 mph top speed for only about 12 miles in Rhode Island.
      But a six-and-one-half hour trip feels much quicker than the usual eight
      hours required by conventional equipment. Is that time worth the additional
      fare? To me it is, By the time I left Washington the sky was starting to get
      light, yet I was in Boston in time for lunch.

      There were just two downsides to the trip. The first was ride quality. We
      weren't even beyond the end of the platform before bumps were quite
      noticeable. It wasn't as bad as Amfleet, which has the ride quality of a
      coaster wagon, but it wasn't good. Strangely, however, it doesn't seem to
      get worse with speed. The cause, I suspect, is additional weight required to
      meet FRA strength standards. When will we accept the fact that trains which
      are safe enough for Europeans should be safe enough for Americans? Of
      course, like all regulatory agencies, FRA pays no price for the requirements
      it levies, so what does it care?

      The other downside was ridership. My train's emptiness on leaving Washington
      was hardly surprising, at 5 AM. But by our departure from New York at 8:03,
      civilized people are up and about. Yet even on the New York-Boston portion
      of the trip, the load factor seemed to be about 50%. Is Acela making money
      when only half the seats are filled? Maybe, but it certainly isn't making as
      much money as Amtrak is counting on it to make. Amtrak has presented Acela
      to Congress as its El Dorado, a magic ticket to self-sufficiency. I doubted
      that claim when it was first made, and I doubt it more now.

      In Boston, I rode just about everything on offer: commuter trains, to and
      from Lowell, on the old Boston and Lowell which dates to 1835; Heritage
      Streetcars in Lowell, in my case a "toast rack" open car beautifully built
      by GOMACO; the Green Line (Light Rail) and the Red Line (Heavy Rail), and
      the Aslunont-Mattapan Line. Ashmont-Mattapan still runs PCC cars in a
      quasi-interurban setting, and it's a great ride. At least on Saturday, there
      was no fare, and I was surprised to see people using it for local travel,
      getting on at one local stop and off at the next, not just as a connector to
      the T. The two cars I rode were a bit shabby, but they are rehabbing them
      locally, restoring their original orange and cream color scheme in the

      While Boston's T isn't fancy, it goes lots of places, operating hours are
      long, even on weekends, service is frequent and the price is a bargain: a
      token is one dollar, and you can ride anywhere on just one, no zones. You
      can do a complete round trip for less than I pay one-way, commuting on
      Washington's Metro. As a result, ridership on a Saturday was heavy on all
      lines, all day. That's the way transit is supposed to work.

      I came back to Washington on two regular corridor trains, breaking my trip
      in Stamford. From Boston to New Haven, my train ran early at every stop.
      Thanks to electrification, Amtrak could (and should) cut at least half an
      hour from the schedule between just those two points. More time is saved
      because an engine change at New Haven is no longer needed (though in the old
      days, that was supposed to be done in five minutes and usually took less).
      Unlike Acela, both regular trains were packed, with barely a seat to spare,
      even in the Business Class car. The windows are tiny, ride quality stinks,
      and the noise level is much higher than on Acela, but I'd bet those trains
      were making Amtrak more money than my Acela did.

      In May, I did some train and Metro riding in both England and France, and
      the comparisons are interesting. In both countries, all the trains I rode
      were far smoother-riding than Acela, much less Amfleet. Britain's trains are
      now much maligned, but both of mine (Heathrow-Fareham) had new, comfortable,
      good-riding stock and were almost on time (like Acela). In France, after
      crossing the Channel the old way, by boat, I took the classic boat train 40
      from Le Havre to Paris. The stock was Corail, from the 1970s or 80s, and my
      first class car was of the compartment type, which I much prefer (the
      wailing infant in another compartment was audible, but only just; in an open
      car, it would have ruined everayone's journey). Top speed did not match
      Acela's 150 mph, but it was sustained for a much greater portion of the
      route, giving a fast overall trip. The seating was excellent (better than
      Acela or Amfleet), my compartment whisper-quiet, and best of all, I could
      sit back and enjoy a pipe of D.P.E. while watching the French countryside
      roll by. I've come to define a free country as a place where you can smoke.

      I was in Paris for a week, and was glad I did not have a car. The Paris
      Metro is superb. Like Boston, it's not fancy, but it goes everywhere, and
      the small, rubber-tired trains have a quaint toy train feel that makes
      riding them fun. At 8 francs, a ticket cost just over a dollar but you can
      buy ten tickets fat 58 francs, which is between seven and eight bucks. Gas
      costs more than 8 francs a quart (liter), not gallon, so the Metro is a real
      bargain. Paris could not function without it. Given that it is a wonderfully
      walkable city as well, a car would be a burden, not an asset. Plus you find
      yourself looking at scenes, like the Gare St. Lazare from the Pont d'Europe,
      that you realize you've seen before -- in paintings by Monet. Somehow, no
      matter how much money we put into our passenger rail service (and we've put
      plenty into the Northeast Corridor), it always feels Third World in
      comparison to Europe. I'll take my nice Corail compartment car over Acela,
      150 mph not withstanding. Why can't we get it right? Of course, if Amtrak
      wanted to bring that Corail stock here, the FRA would stand athwart the
      track, crying "Stop! It's not safe enough for Americans!" And the
      anti-smoking Nazis would howl bloody murder if I dared light my pipe. I
      guess we should be thankful that were at least allowed to visit
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