As Acela turns 10, Amtrak plans high-speed growth
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.