By Justin Bur
INFO 2000 11:1, March 2000
The first all-electric train service between Boston and New York began operation on 31 January, after Amtrak completed electrification and major upgrades to the rail line. The new trains, marketed as Acela Regional, complete the 370 km trip in 3 hours 59 minutes – 45 minutes less than the NortheastDirect trains which use diesel locomotives between Boston and New Haven, Connecticut. Acela Regional also serves the rest of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor between New York and Washington, DC. There are currently two Acela Regional trains daily Monday to Friday and one each day on the weekend. Eventually they will replace NortheastDirect entirely as the backbone of corridor service. The trains use refurbished Metroliner cars and offer improved food service and passenger comfort.
The premium Acela Express trains, originally scheduled to enter service before the end of 1999, will likely now begin running in late spring. Acela Express will be the fastest train service in North America, reaching speeds of 240 km/h. Entirely new trainsets are being supplied under a design-build-operate-maintain contract by a consortium of Bombardier and Alstom (France). The rolling stock's design is based to some extent on the French TGV, but has a much heavier crash-resistent construction to respond to stringent U.S. safety regulations. It also includes Bombardier's hydraulic tilting system for faster operation in curves, originally developed for VIA Rail's LRC trains. (Although the Northeast Corridor is one of the best engineered and maintained railways in North America, it has many more curves and level crossings than high-speed lines in Europe.) The delay in starting the new service was caused by problems with excess wheel wear discovered during testing last summer. Acela Express will replace the very successful 200-km/h Metroliners, originally introduced by the Penn Central Railroad in 1969.
The outlook for passenger rail in the United States, while never trouble-free, is nevertheless relatively bright over the next few years. Amtrak's ridership (up 2% in 1999) and revenue (up 7% to $1.84 billion) are increasing. Revenue is coming not only from passenger services, but also increasingly from transportation of time-sensitive merchandise. Amtrak is now carrying mail for the U.S. Postal Service, parcels for UPS, even refrigerated carloads of fruit from growers in the south to markets in the northeast. Amtrak's service is reliable and consistent, thereby pleasing customers, and is spearheading the railways' return to the market for time-sensitive transportation, largely abandoned to trucking during the 1960s. Mail revenue in 1999 was $80.6 million (up 8.9% from 1998) and express revenue almost doubled in 1999 to $17.2 million.
Increased revenue from Acela and express service is vital to Amtrak's continued survival. Under the terms of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, Amtrak will cease to receive an operating subsidy from the U.S. federal government by the end of fiscal year 2002. If the corporation cannot achieve self-sufficiency, it will not be able to continue operating a national passenger service. So far, targets for expense reduction and revenue growth have mostly been met or exceeded. Amtrak's new board of directors, chaired by Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, has been active in seeking the political support required to obtain capital funding for new projects to expand service.
Among the new projects are the development of eight high-speed rail corridors apart from the Northeast Corridor, in cooperation with federal and state departments of transportation.
In all cases except California, the intention is to upgrade existing rail lines rather than build new high-speed lines, and to use non-electric locomotives. Bombardier is currently developing a gas turbine version of the Acela Express locomotive for this purpose in partnership with the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration.
Apart from Acela, two more new services are planned for the year 2000: between Los Angeles and Las Vegas (one train daily, 5-1/2 hours, starting in September), and between Boston and Portland, Maine (four trains daily by year end, after many years' delay).
And many more service improvements are on the way. Amtrak has been doing market research with the intention of increasing revenue (mail, express, and passenger) by strengthening its network. A long list of future improvements was unveiled at the end of February. Amtrak board member John Robert Smith, mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, explained: "The truth is, we cannot cut ourselves to prosperity. We cannot become a relevant part of our countrys transportation infrastructure by crawling into a shell and hunkering down. On the contrary, we can only improve our bottom-line by aggressively identifying new market opportunities and acting boldly to increase our market share." Amtrak is now acting on one of the axioms of transportation: a well connected network – even if parts of it run at a loss – is essential to providing a viable transportation service.