May 26, 2003 

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Rail Renaissance
November 14, 2000

The new Acela
image: Acela

Train travel, one of the oldest and safest modes of transportation, hasn’t been able to compete with either air or automobile travel. But Americans may finally be trading air rage and highway delays for the romance of the rail. Some say the launch of Acela, Amtrak’s new high-speed train, could signal a renaissance for the American rail system.

Train travel abroad

The U.S. may be a leader in many fields, but rail travel is not among them, at least for passenger travel. "On one hand, arguably we have the best freight train system in the world," says Joseph Sussman, professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "On the passenger side, I’m much less optimistic. Japan and Asia and various countries in Western Europe are well ahead of us providing for passenger service in both conventional and high-speed variety."

Japan is widely acknowledged as the leader in high-speed rail, a service it has been providing since 1964. The Shinkansen, or bullet train, now operates on seven routes, with another route under construction and an additional one in the planning stages. Close to 300 trains operating daily carry more than 300 million passengers a year at speeds up to 180 mph. There have been no passenger fatalities attributed to accidents since the system began operating and it is so efficient that the average lateness per train on the Tokaido Shinkansen, which runs between Tokyo and Osaka, was 24 seconds in 1999.

The Japanese bullet train.

"In Japan, people think first of using rail when they have a trip to make, even when the cities are substantially far apart," says Sussman. "The quality of surface transportation is so high the people think of trains as their first option."

Rail travel is popular in Europe as well. France’s Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGV, has been transporting passengers since the late 1960s and links Paris to cities in France, as well as other countries. Germany’s InterCity Express, or ICE, which started running in the early 1990s, also operates both within Germany and abroad. It even has its own daily newspaper, which is produced and printed on the train.

Catching up

While the U.S. is much larger than these countries and will always have to depend on airplanes for longer distance travel, there are areas of the country that could be well served by trains. These include Boston-New York-Washington, San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco and Chicago-Detroit-Minneapolis-St. Paul, according to Sussman. "In those corridors of several hundred miles each that often have substantial congestion both on the highway and in the air, there’s a real opportunity for high-speed trains to bite significantly into that market," he says.

The introduction of Amtrak’s new high-speed train, the Acela, may be a first step in that direction. Plagued by delays, the Acela is finally set to begin serving the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston with one trip daily in each direction starting December 11. When more trains are delivered, Amtrak expects to eventually be running 19 round trips daily between New York and Washington (two hours, 44 minutes each way) and 10 round trips daily between Boston and New York (three hours, 23 minutes each way).

Acela trains under construction.
image: Acela

The trains will have locomotives on the front and rear, with six passenger coaches in between. Their electric propulsion systems are being made by Alstom, makers of the TGV. Bombardier of Montreal is in charge of assembly and manufacturing and has developed a tilt technology system, in which each coach tilts during curves to improve ride quality. (Tilt technology lets trains go 25 percent faster around curves. On-board computers control the tilt angle, which is activated by compressed air cylinders located underneath the train body.) The trains won’t go as fast as those in Japan and Europe, however, because while they’re brand new, the tracks they’re running on aren’t. They’ll be able to go up to 150 mph between New York and Boston and 135 mph between New York and Washington.

Promises, promises

If Acela delivers reliable high speed rail service, it could set the stage for increased train travel in other regions. Congestion and safety are major concerns both on the air and on the roads, and high-speed trains could address both of these problems.

"To assure safety, there’s several kinds of technology that will have to be incorporated," says Sussman. "Certainly we’ll have to have better control systems to insure trains are running at high speed without risk of collision with other passenger trains and especially outside of the Northeast Corridor, where right of way is shared by freight trains." In addition, Sussman says improving tracks and maintaining them will also be important safety issues.

Although it remains to be seen how effective and competitive Acela will turn out to be, Sussman is among those that are optimistic about the future of rail travel in the U.S. "Rail is on the side of the angels in this transportation competition," he says. "It’s an effective mode from the congestion point of view, it’s an effective mode from an air quality point of view. It can have a tremendous positive impact if properly implemented."

Elsewhere on the web

Association of American Railroads

High Speed Ground Transportation Association

Senator Lautenberg’s high speed rail page

National Association of Railroad Passengers

Federal Railroad Administration

by Jill Max

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