Amtrak finally ready to unleash fast train


Wednesday, October 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



WASHINGTON (AP) _ A year behind schedule, America's first 150 mph trains, linking Boston and Washington, could be ready to roll by Thanksgiving.

Amtrak officials hope the new Acela Express service, featuring sleek, snub-nosed trains, will be a lucrative addition that helps the railway wean itself from nearly three decades of federal assistance.

The service was scheduled to debut last October. But premature wheel wear and problems with the tilting technology that helps the train negotiate curves delayed the start until this past spring.

Then, delivery was delayed until July as technicians addressed sideways movement of the wheels at high speeds. The date was pushed back again when missing and broken bolts were found.

Amtrak is under a congressional order to become financially self-sufficient by 2003 and Acela Express is integral to its survival plan. High-speed service in the Northeast Corridor is projected to earn $180 million a year; by comparison, Amtrak says it was $484 million short of self-sufficiency in 1999, a year in which it posted record revenues of $1.84 billion.

Under its contract with the consortium building the trains, Canada's Bombardier Transportation and France's Alston Ltd., Amtrak can seek up to $13,500 a day in penalties for each of the 20 eight-car train sets it ordered. Amtrak has said only that it is discussing penalties with the consortium.

Amtrak officials hope that America's first brush with bullet trains will spur public interest across the country. Legislation pending in Congress would help Amtrak raise $10 billion over 10 years to make necessary track and train improvements for high-speed service on up to 11 more train corridors.

Acela trains will travel up to 150 mph, compared with a top speed of 125 mph now reached by other Amtrak trains. The high-speed trains will cut nearly an hour off the typical four-hour Boston-to-New York trip and 15 minutes off a three-hour train between New York and Washington.

A one-way coach ticket between Washington and New York will be $143, up from $122 now. Between New York and Boston it will cost $120, up from $72.

Those fares compare with the one-way, walk-up rate of $202 for the hourly shuttle service offered by Delta and US Airways. Unlike Amtrak, however, the air shuttles offer discounted fares on weekends _ as low as $63 with three-day advance purchase.

In a report last month to Congress, Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead said Amtrak may be overestimating how many Amtrak riders will pay higher fares to take its faster trains.

Mead's report predicted that many passengers will take Amtrak's improved conventional service, Acela Regional, from Boston to New York, accepting 50 more minutes of travel in exchange for a lower fare.

Amtrak is offering more than speed on the new trains, however. The silver-and-turqoise trains will also feature more comfortable seats, audio and video entertainment, and improved food service.