By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 9:00 PM
Promptly at 1 p.m., a sleek Acela Express train glided out of Union Station on a recent weekday packed with white-collar workers tapping away on laptops connected to the train's wireless Internet service.
Amtrak launched the nation's most advanced high-speed rail service a decade ago Saturday, and after a herky-jerky start, Acela has come of age as a popular alternative to flights or traversing Interstate 95 along the busy Northeast Corridor.
Acela trains carried more than 3.2 million passengers in fiscal 2010, according to Amtrak. An average of about 72 percent of the train's 300 seats were sold on peak segments and 60 percent on all segments - figures that have improved substantially over the past five years, according to data from the rail agency.
Eager to expand on the success, Amtrak recently unveiled a long-range vision for a vastly more ambitious bullet train that would shoot up the East Coast at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour - cutting the trip from Washington to Boston from six and a half to just three hours and 20 minutes. Amtrak's Northeast Regional trains now make the trip in about eight hours.
"We are talking about state of the art," said Al Engel, Amtrak's vice president for high speed rail.
"Two-hundred-and-twenty miles per hour is not a big deal in the world," said Engel, who was attending a high-speed rail conference in China. He noted that China just tested a train that reaches speeds of more than 300 miles per hour.
The United States, with its car-centric culture and extensive interstates, has long lagged behind Japan, China and Europe in high-speed rail.
The Amtrak concept would mark a major step toward closing that gap, with a massive investment of $117 billion over the next 25 years to build the new system, including new track, tunnels, bridges and stations.
The plan projects that demand for high-speed rail will grow significantly along the Northeast Corridor, approaching 18 million passengers a year by 2040, when the new service would be fully operational. Departures of the high-speed trains would increase from one to four per hour in each direction.
Engel acknowledges major financial and political hurdles to the project in a nation where lawmakers are reluctant to propose new taxes to fund transportation infrastructure, and the federal transportation fund is "bankrupt."
The Obama administration has distributed about $10 billion to states to develop high-speed rail, with California and Florida receiving the bulk of the money.
Jim McClellan, a retired railroad executive and Federal Railroad Administration official who helped create Amtrak in the 1970s, called the vision highly unrealistic.
"You really need to walk before you run," he said. "Amtrak has so many real-life problems today they need to be addressing," he said, including repairs on what he called an "ancient" system. "At some point you just have to do your day job, and that's running trains."
For their part, Acela passengers welcomed the possibility of a faster rail service, which under the Amtrak plan would begin replacing Acela in about 2030.
"Time is money in the business world, so if you can get somewhere sooner, you can have more meetings with people," said Nazareno J. Regalbuto of Marlton, N.J., as he worked on his laptop during a recent trip to Washington.
Across the aisle, media professional Jo Ann Haller agreed.
"I've been to Japan, and I've been on their trains, and it's remarkable," she said.
Acela's own history illustrates the technical and mechanical difficulties of implementing a much more modest vision of advanced rail service.
This week, train engineer Carlyle Smith looked down the tracks from the cab of an Acela locomotive at Union Station and ticked off a string of mechanical problems Amtrak has had since it began operating the first of its 20 Acela trains 10 years ago.
"For the first couple of years, there was a lot of tweaks," said Smith, who got a job as a train conductor after leaving the Army in 1996 and joined Amtrak as an engineer in 1998.
The stop-and-go signals displayed on the train did not match those on the tracks, and sometimes cars did not tilt correctly, which forced the engineer to slow down. There were also problems with the electrical voltage, he said.
In 2005, a Federal Railroad Administration inspector found hairline cracks in disk-brake rotors underneath an Acela train, and a resulting investigation discovered cracks in 300 of 1,440 brake disks in the 20-train fleet, prompting Amtrak to shut down the service for three months.
Even today, the fleet requires substantial maintenance, with four of the 20 trains out of service at any given time for scheduled maintenance or a major overhaul. Because the locomotives and cars are linked together, a problem with any car requires the entire train to be taken out of service, Amtrak spokesman Steven Kulm said.
Nevertheless, the Acela has won over customers and crew alike.
"It's like a Mercedes-Benz. It's almost like a cockpit," said Smith, who operates Amtrak's Northeast Regional locomotives as well.
Each Acela train has about 260 business class seats and 40 first-class seats with reclining leather chairs and tables in each car.
Mike Nagel, a TV sales executive from Long Island, said he prefers Acela for comfort, cleanliness, and reliability. But, he said, "it doesn't really save much in terms of time."