EDITOR'S NOTE: Staff writer Don Phillips has traveled many thousands of miles on trains over the past four decades, from crowded, steam-powered trains across China to the 186-mph French TGV. He rode a 163-mph test aboard the original Metroliner cars in the early 1970s as well as more recent tests of Swedish and German high-speed trains between Washington and New York. On Monday and Tuesday, he rode about 200 miles of high-speed tests of the first of Amtrak's new trains.

Amtrak's new high-speed trains will not run as fast as their big brother, the French TGV, nor will they be quite as glassy smooth. But it appears they will provide the fastest and smoothest train ride in America.

Out on the treeless high plains west of here, where antelopes far outnumber humans and Pikes Peak graces the distant horizon, the first of 20 new high-speed train sets is being put through its paces at the Transportation Technology Center's test facility before becoming the new order for rail transportation between Washington, New York and Boston.

The sleek, electric train spends up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week sprinting around a 13 1/2-mile track as technicians for manufacturer Bombardier Inc. of Montreal and chief partner Alstom of Paris--makers of the TGV--labor to smooth out a number of nagging developmental problems.

In regular service, the trains will be limited to 150 mph, but they have sprinted up to 165 mph in tests here.

That top 150-mph speed will be allowed only on segments of the line between New Haven, Conn., and Boston, where Amtrak has spent $1.8 billion for new overhead wires to supply electric power to the locomotives, as well as to fund signal and track work. Those improvements, coupled with new tilt technology, will allow as much as an hour and a half to be slashed from current Boston-New York schedules if Amtrak can make the planned three-hour-and-three-minute express schedule.

Amtrak is still negotiating with New York and Connecticut commuter authorities to increase speeds from 75 mph to 90 mph on track that they own south of New Haven.

For the time being, passengers between Washington and New York will have to be satisfied with a smoother ride. Aging overhead electrical power lines will limit top speeds to 135 mph, just 10 mph greater than current top speeds.

Richard R. Sarles, the Amtrak vice president for Northeast Corridor high-speed rail, said eventually Amtrak plans to replace the wires, called "catenary," and to install a new system that will stop or slow trains that exceed speed limits or ignore signals. But that expensive work is not in current budgets. Sarles said that, nonetheless, the train's better acceleration will allow 16 minutes to be lopped off the schedule, to two hours and 43 minutes, with new express trains making the trip in two hours and 32 minutes.

Amtrak's new trains will likely place considerable competitive pressure on the two airline shuttles that currently operate between Washington, New York and Boston. Amtrak already carries more people between Washington and New York than the Delta and US Airways shuttles combined. The Council of New England Governors a few years ago estimated that higher-speed train service could siphon off so many air travelers that it would open up 10 airport gates at Boston's Logan International Airport that are now devoted to Boston-New York flights.

Full-fare trips on the airlines' shuttles are more expensive than taking the Metroliner now, but it's unclear whether the airlines will decide it's necessary to lower those prices to try to compete with the new Amtrak service.

In tests Monday and Tuesday as fast as 145 mph, the new trains passed a real-world test that should bring smiles to current Metroliner riders. Even with the new tilt system turned off, it was possible to stand up on curves without holding onto anything, and it was possible to sit and to write legibly.

The Amfleet equipment now used on Metroliner trains bounces like a cork on a wind-blown pond compared with the new trains. And every experienced passenger now knows to keep one hand on a seat back while walking to the food car or the restroom.

Amtrak has set an ambitious schedule that calls for the first passenger runs to be made in November or December, and for the trains to replace Metroliner service and take over all other premium train service between Washington and Boston by August next year. The trip will cost more--$140 one-way between Washington and New York, compared with $114 now.

Some sources close to the testing expressed doubt that the start-up schedule could be kept. They said most of the developmental problems can be fixed, but that it is a slow process. Nonetheless, the sources pointed out that the manufacturers are trying hard to meet the schedule because they would be subject to a "substantial financial penalty" under the contract if they failed to have the trains ready on time.

Between New York and Boston, every train will be an addition to the current schedule. None of the other trains--which will use refurbished Amfleet equipment--will be canceled.

But between Washington and New York, the new trains will replace the Metroliners. There will be a few new schedules because rush-hour service is to be increased to every half-hour instead of hourly, Sarles said.

The trains are clearly a compromise on wheels. Neither the federal government nor any state government has come up with the billions of dollars it would take to do what the French and Japanese have done--build new lines exclusively for high-speed trains. Therefore, the Amtrak trains have tilt technology that will sense when the train is entering one of the many curves along the Northeast corridor and tilt the cars for passenger comfort. That tilt technology allows higher speeds on curves, particularly the many sharp curves along the line north of New Haven.

The trains will carry about twice as much weight on each axle than the TGV, mostly because Federal Railroad Administration safety rules require much more rugged construction than most foreign countries do. The French technicians are still grumbling about that, as the extra weight affects acceleration, top speed and the quality of the ride.

It may be unfair to judge the new trains now because part of the testing stage is to improve its systems. It also is filled with test equipment and miles of wires, with no seats and carpeting. Conversely, the trains may ride differently on Northeast Corridor track even though the test track here is maintained to the same standards.

Given those caveats, the tests on Monday and Tuesday show some things fairly clearly:

* The train has more than enough power. Its two locomotives, one on each end, sport a total of 12,500 horsepower. One locomotive was off line during these tests and became an additional drag on the one operating locomotive. Nonetheless, as engineer Bob Thuyms pushed the throttle forward, its acceleration was impressive. And speed barely deteriorated even on the test track's 1.3 percent grade, far greater than any grade it will face in regular service.

* Its braking system is unusually effective, even coming down from top speed.

* The locomotive controls were designed in conjunction with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and they appear to be ergonomically ideal. The speedometer and brake dials, on video screens in front of the engineer, are easy to read in any light.

* The train does not ride as smoothly as the TGV, with its light axle loads and exclusive track with gentle curves. But its little jostles and sways are hardly noticeable unless one is paying attention for a newspaper story.

* It is quiet. Normal conversation is easy, even without the dampening effect of seats and carpeting.

* The tilt system is noticeably effective. Technicians were having trouble with the system at one point, occasionally leaving it engaged on one curve but cut out on the next. Even without the tilt, the train rode better than any equipment operating on the corridor today. With the tilt working, the outward force of the curve all but disappeared.

But the train is four inches too wide to be able to use its entire tilting capability. To prevent any possibility of hitting passing trains, the train will be limited to 4.2 degrees of tilt instead of 6.8 degrees. That means it will not be able to take some curves as fast as it might.

Amtrak and Bombardier insist the purchase agreement required only that the train be able to make its schedule, and it will do so. Neither side is eager to discuss why the cars were not made four inches narrower, although they say that decision was driven by seat and aisle width. Amtrak officials, who initially blamed Bombardier, now stress cooperation.

The tilt mechanism is also complicated, presenting a potential maintenance problem. A gyroscopic sensor on the front of the locomotive "reads" each curve and orders each car to tilt just the right amount as each enters the curve. If individual computers or pumps break down on any one car, the tilt automatically turns off on the entire train.

Amtrak is placing a lot of its future in the hands of the train, which it calls "Acela," for "acceleration" and "excellence." The company plans an advertising blitz when the trains are introduced in hopes of making it an even bigger success than the original Metroliner cars of 30 years ago.

The company's business plan calls for the trains to contribute an additional $180 million a year toward filling the company's annual deficit, estimated by the U.S. General Accounting Office to be $930 million (including the $575 million-a-year federal subsidy Amtrak enjoys). But more important, the company is prompting the high-speed concept in corridors around the country. It hopes a successful Acela program will lead the states to apply pressure to Congress for more money for high-speed trains, as well as make greater contributions themselves.

A disaster for Acela could doom the high-speed program and perhaps lead to dire consequences for Amtrak itself.

Service problems also could be costly for Bombardier, which captured the $800 million project with a contract that gives the company little quarter on defects. Bombardier will maintain the trains and must pay penalties for any mechanical problem that delays a train or causes passenger discomfort. Even a toilet breakdown calls for a penalty of several hundred dollars.

The train's test car, filled with computer screens and technicians, rocks with a cacophony of conversations and radio transmissions in French, French Canadian and English. One official privately compared the test car to the bar scene from "Star Wars," although the characters are better-looking.

So far, engineers seem to be on top of developmental problems, although it is too early to declare victory.

By far the most serious problem so far has been solved. At first, the wheel sets--called "trucks"--developed a problem called "truck hunting" at high speeds. Essentially the wheel sets began oscillating from side to side, risking derailment.

Part of the solution was to use a different tread profile on the steel wheels, which now has apparently led to unusually rapid wear of the wheel flanges. Engineers are now working to solve that problem.

Most other problems involve software changes to avoid electromagnetic interference with nearby signal systems.

Externally, the new train sets resemble the French TGV, with sloped, bullet-like noses. Each train set will have six cars and two 6,250-horsepower electric locomotives, with capacity for 304 people in two classes of service.

The four coaches on each train--which Amtrak will call "business class"--will feature two seats on each side of the aisle with audio programming at each seat, 120-volt outlets for laptop computers, and large seats with adjustable headrests and footrests. The one first-class car will have two seats on one side of the aisle and just one seat on the other. The car will have video screens and at-seat food service. Restrooms are designed to "feel like home," Amtrak promises, with more space, better lighting and baby-changing tables.

Each train will have a cafe car, which Amtrak promises will offer improved food and beer on tap. Privately, Amtrak officials say the semi-comfortable bar-stool-type seats are designed to discourage passengers from simply hanging out at the bar for the whole trip.

Sleek and Speedy

Some specifics on the 20 high-speed trains that Amtrak is putting into service.

Name: The Acela

Manufacturers: Bombardier of Montreal and Alstom of Paris

Maximum speed: 165 mph, but service will not exceed 150 mph

Service scheduled to start: November or December; by August 2000, the trains should replace Metroliner service and take over all other premium trains service between Washington and Boston

Cost: $140, one way, Washington to New York

Seating capacity: 304 people

First-class features: Video screens and at-seat food service

Business-class features: Audio programming at each seat; 120-volt outlets for laptops; large seats with adjustable headrests and footrests

Acela's Web site: