"A thousand and one things can go wrong" on a train trip, Amtrak Vice President William S. Norman told reporters aboard Amtrak's new Express Metroliner yesterday.
One did: The train, which is supposed to make the New York-Washington run in two hours and 59 minutes, was 22 minutes late.
The train had been running 6 minutes ahead of schedule until it neared the Baltimore Tunnel, long a famous bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor. The train sat for almost a half-hour while a freight train that had broken down in the tunnel was pulled out.
The new, normally faster Express Metroliners--running three times each day each way--are part of an overall Amtrak effort to upgrade Metroliner service between Washington and New York and reverse declining ridership. Beginning Sunday, all of the Amtrak trains traveling within the Northeast Corridor began running on faster schedules. Besides the new three-hour express service, Amtrak shaved between 15 and 20 minutes off the running time of the regular Metroliners, bringing their travel time down to 3 hours and 10 to 20 minutes between Washington and New York. And some of those trains have been arriving early.
With the sometimes substantial delays encountered currently by air travelers to New York as a result of the reduced air traffic control system capacity, the trains with their reduced downtown-to-downtown running time could become an increasingly attractive alternative to air travel.
At least that might be possible when Amtrak increases its computerized reservations capacity tenfold this weekend with the introduction of a new $55 million system. Right now, prospective travelers trying to reach Amtrak on the phone are lucky if they can get through at all, and lucky again if they aren't placed on hold for an interminably long time.
The problem is not with the adequacy of telephone lines but with the current reservations system, according to Norman, Amtrak's vice president of sales and marketing. The system wasn't designed for the volume of calls Amtrak now gets, and its computers are frequently "down"--not working--requiring reservations to be taken manually and slowly, Norman said. "It has been a severe problem" and travelers are "rightfully indignant," he said.
There were quite a few "rightfully indignant" travelers waiting in Union Station yesterday when the Express Metroliner pulled in after a sometimes bumpy ride. With the New York airports closed because of fog Monday evening and most of yesterday, with the computers down and phones busy for two days, more than 60 people--many fresh from the airport--were standing in line waiting for tickets.
The speeded-up Metroliner service has been made possible by the completion of some track work and the addition of new high-speed locomotives. The Swedish-designed, American-built AEM-7 locomotives allow the trains routinely to reach a speed of 110 miles an hour on the upgraded track.
A major reason for the reduced travel time on the express service is the elimination of three stops along the way; between Washington and New York, the express trains stop only at Baltimore and Philadelphia. The other Metroliners will continue to stop five times.
As part of its effort to upgrade the service, Amtrak has also replaced the old 76-seat and 84-seat Metroliner cars with roomier coaches for 60 on comfortable reclining seats with leg rests. The new equipment is on all the Metroliner runs. Each express-service train carries three coach cars, a dinette and the first-class 33-seat "club" car.