May 27, 2002
Acela Express an Amtrak success
Train a model of what rail in Midwest could be
By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - Before the sleek, bullet-nosed train eased out of Union Station, environmental attorney Donald Elliott had
pulled out his laptop, cell phone and Blackberry and positioned them on the table in front of him.
His rolling office set up for business, he proceeded to check e-mail, advise nervous clients and type notes as the train carried
him on his weekly three-hour commute to New Haven, Conn., where he teaches a class at Yale.
Elliott is one of the converts Amtrak officials boast about. He used to take shuttle flights each week. But post-Sept. 11, he
prefers Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express over the time-consuming security checks at the airport.
"It's less stressful than being on a plane," Elliott said. "It's just a more civilized way to travel."
Promoters of a high-speed rail initiative in the Midwest cite the Acela Express as a model of what train travel might be like
someday in Illinois.
But critics say it's not living up to its potential.
Amid Amtrak's financial woes, the Acela Express is held up as one of the beleaguered agency's few success stories. Its
popularity soared after Sept. 11. More people are riding trains than ever before, especially on Amtrak's Washington-New
Acela Express ridership jumped after the Sept. 11 attacks, from 96,037, or 218 passengers per train, in August to 201,176, or
340 passengers per train, in October. While ridership dipped in the winter months, it was up again to 219,917 in March.
For the first time last fall, more people were traveling between Washington and New York by train than by air.
Thanks primarily to the Acela Express, Amtrak has captured 58 percent of the rail-air traffic from Washington to New York,
an increase from 36 percent before high-speed rail service started in late 2000, according to Amtrak's latest estimates.
As evidence of its newly acquired competitive status, both US Airways and Delta, which fly shuttles between those cities, are
running ads against the Acela Express.
"If you had more of this type of train service in other parts of the country, the defection would have been greater in other parts
of the country as well," said Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Rail Passengers and an advocate of
Acela Express passengers cite convenience and comfort among the primary reasons they choose the train over planes. In the
heavily congested Northeast, driving is less of an option than it is in the Midwest.
High airfares and gridlock at the nation's airports were causing many corporate travelers to look at alternatives even before
Sept. 11, said Kevin Mitchell, editor of the Business Travel Coalition Web site, www.btctravelogue.com.
To meet demand, Amtrak just boosted the number of high-speed trains out of Washington from 13 to 17 each weekday. Nine
trains leave Boston each weekday.
Skeptics say the Acela Express trains still aren't all that fast.
"I think that the Acela is a qualified success," said Jim Coston, a Chicago attorney who sits on the Amtrak Reform Council that
was created by Congress to monitor Amtrak. "It's as successful as the track it runs on will allow it to be."
Acela Express passenger cars use "advanced tilt technology" that enables them to take turns at higher speeds. The train is built
to go up to 150 mph, but it reaches that speed for only about 7 miles in Rhode Island, on the Boston-New York leg, because
tracks and bridges along much of the line are more than a century old. The tunnels south of Baltimore were dug in 1877.
Top speed from Washington to New York City is 135 mph. That makes the two hour and 45 minute trip only about 20
minutes shorter than Amtrak's regular trains - tickets for which are about half the price.
A next-day, same-day-return ticket from Washington to New York costs $294 compared to $144 for the conventional train,
but that higher price is still $118 less than flying.
"Most of the time, that train only runs 80 mph," Coston said. "It's a real shame to spend almost $1 billion to run a train just as
fast as the trains that were replaced were running."
Amtrak officials acknowledge they'll have difficulty attracting more riders on the northern leg of the corridor, from New York to
Boston, unless Acela Express shrinks the travel time. Amtrak carries just 38 percent of business travelers from New York to
Boston, up from 18 percent in mid-1999 but not up as dramatically as in the southern end of the corridor. The infrastructure
problems there are more difficult to resolve.
While Amtrak lost $1.1 billion in fiscal 2001, the Acela Express/Metroliner route had an operating profit of $51 million - the
only Amtrak route for which train revenue covered operating costs, according to the General Accounting Office.
But the Acela Express may not be as profitable as Amtrak officials claim if needed capital improvements are factored in, which
some have estimated at $20 billion for the Northeast Corridor. The corridor loses $500,000 a year when all the costs of
owning the 650 miles of track are included, Coston said.
Amtrak officials say that's an unfair criticism.
"Individual airlines don't have to pay to maintain runways or airports," said Amtrak spokeswoman Karen Dunn.
The Amtrak Reform Council has recommended that Congress break the Northeast Corridor into a separate corporation and
have a new Amtrak agency take bids from private companies to operate that portion of the system. The new company could
charge fees to commuter railroads to pay for infrastructure improvements.
As Congress debates Amtrak's future, Amtrak promotes the Acela Express - not for its speed, but rather as a way for business
travelers to stay productive while en route.
"Ever try to use your cell phone or pager from a plane?" Dunn asks, echoing Amtrak's new ad campaign.
The Acela Express offers plenty of leg room and an electrical outlet at every seat. Every train also has a "quiet car" for those
who want to avoid the ringing of cell phones and clicking of laptops. Passengers even like the food and coffee in the café car -
at least, compared to airline food.
"It's clean. It's convenient," said Susan Greger, a grants manager for Johnson & Johnson, who has always preferred taking the
train for her frequent trips from Washington to Boston to visit university researchers.
"It's just so much easier than doing the airport thing," Greger said.