America is a mobile society, but increasingly many Americans spend their time completely immobilized¿stuck in traffic or delayed at the airport. The freeways are no longer free, and not only on holiday weekends. And the Federal Aviation Authority recently acknowledged that mounting delays at New York¿s La Guardia Airport have "frustrated passenger travel plans." One way to beat the traffic, discovered long ago by the Europeans and the Japanese, is to travel by high-speed train.
Next week on December 11, the era of superfast trains will finally dawn in the U.S.¿after many delays¿when Amtrak¿s Acela Express will start operating in the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston. On a 40-mile stretch in New England, Acela (pronounced Ah-CELL-a)¿an odd combination of "acceleration" and "excellence"¿will speed up to 150 miles per hour, cutting the travel time between New York and Boston from four hours and 15 minutes to a mere three hours and 20 minutes. It is mostly on this route that Amtrak is hoping to lure passengers away from the airlines. Currently, its share of the rail/air travel business is 30 percent between New York and Boston, and 70 percent between Washington, D.C., and New York. "We hope to be able to close that gap considerably," says Cecilia Cummings of the Amtrak press office.
Although 150 miles per hour is more than twice as fast as most people travel on the highway, Acela Express trains cannot compete with their European and Japanese cousins: the British/French/Belgian Eurostar, the German ICE train (Inter City Express) and the Japanese Shinkansen routinely reach up to 186 miles per hour, and the French TGV (train ¿ grande vitesse) travels at up to 200 miles per hour. The TGV also holds the world rail speed record, set in 1990, at 322 miles per hour. The advantage these trains possess is that they often run on purpose-built tracks. Although Acela did reach 168 miles per hour in a test run, its operating speed is largely limited by the existing tracks, despite a major overhaul between New Haven and Boston that included complete electrification and the replacement of many bridges.
On the southern leg between New York and Washington, the train does not even exceed 135 miles per hour and so cuts the current travel time down by only about 15 minutes, to two hours and 45 minutes. "If we want to go faster, we must make a major improvement to the electrification system," said Richard Sarles, vice president of high speed rail development in the Northeast corridor at Amtrak. Because the wires are fixed on this stretch, they sag in the summer when it¿s hot and become tense in the winter when it¿s cold. As a result, the interface between the wires and the pantograph, the conducting rod protruding from the train, is variable.
A Bombadier/Alstom manufacturing consortium built Acela Express. Its propulsion technology is derived from the TGV, and the elongated nose of its power car, or locomotive, clearly shows the two trains are related. One key difference, however, is that each Acela coach has four trucks, or bogies (wheel assemblies), with four wheels each. In the TGV design, two adjacent coaches share a truck and are therefore coupled.
Source: LOUGHBOROUGH UNIVERSITY
The American train has also adopted tilting technology, which reduces the centrifugal force experienced by passengers when the train enters a curve. Instead of being pushed to one side, train riders are pressed more firmly¿and more comfortably¿into their seats. European trains, such as the Swedish X2000 train and the Italian Pendolino, have long used tilting. These trains, like Acela, do not run on straight purpose-built tracks but rely instead on old, winding rails. On these trains, the coaches tilt up to 6.5 degrees¿relative to the static trucks¿as they go around a curve (see illustration). The idea is similar to how a rider keeps his or her balance on a motorbike: "If you were riding a bike and did not lean to one side in a curve, you would fall over," Sarles explains. A sensor in the power car monitors when the train arrives at a curve and activates each coach, making them tilt independently.
The new train is high-tech from the inside out: each seat is fitted with a power outlet for a laptop computer, a reading light and several audio channels. And unlike a plane, the train has no restrictions on the use of cellular phones or pagers. "It¿s pretty much a business shuttle," Cummings comments. The fact that Amtrak is targeting business travelers is reflected in Acela's rather hefty prices: A one-way ticket in the less-expensive business class from Washington, D.C., to New York costs $143, and $120 from New York to Boston, with no discounts for children or seniors. Amtrak is plannning to introduce special offers and "competitive packages," though, for leisure travelers at some point in the future.
Initially, one train will travel between Washington, D.C., and Boston in each direction only on weekdays, making 14 stops, among them BWI airport, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York, Stamford, New Haven and Providence. Each train, consisting of six coaches and two power cars, can carry up to 304 passengers: 44 in first class and 260 in business class. Like most European trains¿and the Metroliner service Acela replaces¿it has a restaurant car. According to Amtrak, the train frequency will gradually increase to 19 round-trips per day between Washington, D.C., and New York, and 10 round-trips between New York and Boston before next summer. This schedule will also include weekend trips. In addition, a nonstop Super Express between Washington, D.C., and New York, running at two hours and 30 minutes, is planned for sometime next year.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, a number of states are exploring high speed rail corridors at the moment. New fast trains will certainly never replace long-distance air travel across the U.S. But they might find their niche as links between cities up to 500 miles apart. Their chances will certainly rely on the success of the new Amtrak train.