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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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Reporter Adeline Sire critiques Amtrak’s new fast train called the Acela. The train runs the Boston to Washington D.C. route. It’s modeled after a French bullet train, but it doesn’t quite live up to all its expectations.


TOOMEY: Amtrak's high speed train, called the Acela, has been up and running between Boston and Washington since last November. The train was a year late getting into service, thanks to glitches in making a sophisticated tilting mechanism work properly. The Acela is modeled in style and technology after the French bullet train, called the TGV.

But, as Adeline Sire reports, after a ride from Boston to New York, the Acela has a ways to go before catching up with its French cousin.

SIRE: Think about train travel the way most Americans know it: cars with sticky vinyl seats, and linoleum floors of dubious colors. The train stops at every podunk town. It changes engines halfway through the trip, and often runs late. Now, close your eyes, and step into the future.

(Ambient Sound: Amtrak Conductor)

SIRE: Meet Acela, Amtrak's new sleek and silver, all-electric fast train. Step aboard through the automatic doors. Your car is softly lit, and music emanates from just above your plush blue seat. If you travel first-class, the cabin crew will bring you drinks and dinner.

The Acela rolls out of South Station, in Boston. Destination: New York City. In the lead is the engine, with its aerodynamic tip like the nose of an airplane. And this train aims to beat the plane by offering more comfort and more class. The Acela rolls out of South Station, in Boston. Destination: New York City. In the lead is the engine, with its aerodynamic tip, like the nose of an airplane. And this train aims to beat the plane by offering more comfort and more class.

Dan Knapick is an assistant vice-president at Amtrak.

KNAPICK: You can always tell the primary airline customer: When you announce, "In three minutes we'll arrive Boston," they bring their seat up to the upright position and stow their tray table. They're very well-trained. And they really don't like it. They're sick of being confined, they're sick of being told what to do.

SIRE: But, there's a cost to pay for all the attention the Acela will lavish on you. For a one-way bus into New York ticket, you'll pay $187 in first-class, and $120 in business class. That's only slightly less than a plane ticket bought at the last minute, and there's no coach service.

But Amtrak's Don Knapick says that as the Acela adds more trains - up to 10 round trips by the end of this year - ticket prices will drop and air weary travelers will come.

KNAPICK: I would venture to say that if I can attract people, the first time, off the airplane, we pretty much have them. It certainly has enhanced travel experience, in any way you define it.

SIRE: The Acela riders I spoke with seemed to agree. They appear taken by the train's modern looks and its service. Han Nguyen, on his way to Newark, New Jersey, opted for the train to avoid prohibitive last minute air fares.

NGUYEN: I just wanted to get to where I wanted to go really fast, and this is sort of like a Buck Rogers meets Star Trek. I mean, just looking into the corridors, I mean, it literally looked like something out of a t.v. show. Like, they have sensors to open the doors, and the lighting's really nice, and it's just very open-aired, versus the old trains, which are really claustrophobic and sort of dim-colored. And this is very--I think it's more pleasing.

SIRE: Han Nguyen also appreciates that the Acela is wired: you can plug in your computer or your cell phone at your seat, or plug your headphones into the arm rest, to hear music channels. And CNN is available down at the cafe car.

But what about the real purpose of this train, speed? The Acela is capable of reaching 150 miles per hour, but it takes three and a half hours to run the 210 mile distance between Boston and New York. That's a mile a minute, a mere 60 miles per hour, and it only shaves an hour off the much cheaper, conventional train ride.

To find out why the Acela isn't living up to its potential, I visited the two men who make the train go. George Craig and Donald Lacey are the Acela's engineers. As Lacy explains, the Acela is modeled on France's high speed train, called the TGV. The Acela uses the same propulsion equipment as the TGV, but the French train can travel an equivalent Boston to New York route an hour and a half faster than the Acela.

The difference, says Lacy, is that, unlike the TGV, the Acela doesn't run on its own tracks.

LACEY: Here in the Northwest Corridor we run commuter trains, inner city trains and freight trains on the same track. If we could find dedicated track, then we could run higher.

SIRE: Dedicated tracks would also slow another factor that slows the Acela down: the track layout from Boston to New York is curvy, which doesn't allow for high speeds.

LACEY: Near Providence we have some curves, then we'll be leaving Greenwich, we'll be going into the high speed track, 150 miles an hour.

SIRE: So how long are we actually going at 150 miles per hour?

LACEY: Actually, on the Corridor we have 18 miles of 150 and that's it--so far. Maybe we'll build more.

SIRE: Still, the engineers love their new train set.

LACEY: It's like going from a 1939 Ford to a 2001 Ferrari. Probably the nicest train I've ever been on. It's really been a pleasure operating it. It is a pleasure to operate.

SIRE: And the train conductor cheers on the engineers as the Acela begins to pick up speed. Almost at 150, huh? What is it now?

GRAIG: One-forty-five.

LACEY: You gonna do it.

CRAIG: I know I can, I know I can. (beep noises) Ha-ha. Alright.

SIRE: Here it is, 150 miles per hour. But don't blink.

CRAIG: Now this is the way it's supposed to be. Unfortunately it doesn't last that long. Now we slow down a little bit you will think you're not even moving.

SIRE: Is that it?

CRAIG: That's it for now.

SIRE: 30 seconds?

CRAIG and LACEY: yeah.

SIRE: (laughs) That was our peak?

CRAIG: That was the peak.

SIRE: Okay, so what's the big deal? In France, the high speed train, TGV, has been part of the landscape for more than 20 years, and I've ridden it many times. In comparison, riding the Acela, while certainly as comfortable as the TGV, can sometimes feel like I'm standing still. There's also the cost: hopping aboard the French TGV costs little more than the conventional train. This Boston to New York run, for example, would cost about $50. And, the French railway system offers a wide range of discounts. Amtrak's Don Knapick says the difference is the matter of investment. Compared with Americas, the French give their railway system a lot of attention.

KNAPICK: The amount of money spent on TGV is probably five hundred times what is invested in the entire Amtrak system, in a country as small as France. Our capital budget for high speed rail is probably on the line of something you would find in a much smaller country.

SIRE: Let's say -

KNAPICK: Estonia.

(ambience-Amtrak announcer)

SIRE: The Acela arrives at New York's Penn Station, ten minutes behind schedule. Now, some might call that fashionably late, and, come to think of it, the Acela is a stylish train. It's very chic, and very costly, and that's fine. But, for now at least, the Acela won't get you anywhere very fast. For Living on Earth, I'm Adeline Sire.



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