Let Acela Have Her Head

By Bill Moore

Posted: 20 Jul 2010

You can learn a lot about Amtrak and its Acela high-speed rail service along the East Coast talking with Oscar Shelton.

Now the personnel manager for the city of Warwick, Rhode Island, Shelton spent some 20 years with Amtrak starting as a line worker raising the bridge near New Haven to being a train dispatcher. Clearly, he still has a passion for trains, sharing with me his many experiences while he, his lovely wife Carol, son Adam and our niece Alexandra had dinner overlooking Greenwich Cove. Across the road from the restaurant was the Amtrak mainline on which my wife and I had traveled, via Acela 2158, two days earlier.

While I have ridden the Acela train before, this was my wife's first experience, and I can report that she loved it; its comfortable seats and foot rests; its quiet, smooth ride; its uncrowded, unhassled spaciousness.

The one thing it isn't, however, is 'high-speed.' It took more than three and a half hours to make what should taken under three hours at an average speed of just over 90 mph. On this particular journey, we were held up by two things: a stretch of single track operation: one of the parallel tracks was closed, forcing trains to wait on a siding to let others pass; and a regional train ahead of us that was having mechanical problems.

Even with these unexpected hinderances, we still managed to average better than 74 mph between Penn Station in New York City and Providence, where the station is conveniently located in the heart of town. I doubt we could have done that by car. Better yet, I was able to connect my laptop to the train's 110V outlet next to each row of seats and use Acela's WiFi Internet service to check my emails and even do a little work. I certainly couldn't have done that flogging our way up Interstate 95 in a rental car.

That being said, Acela in its current incarnation can't live up to its true potential. Capable of speeds of 150 mph, it seldom reaches that speed for any appreciable distance or length of time. I learned from Oscar that between New York and Boston there is only a mere 10 mile stretch of track that is straight enough and stable enough to let engineers be able to open up the throttle and give Acela her head. Subsequent Internet reseach suggests this now has been increased to around 40 miles, still a fraction of the more than 400 mile Acela system between Boston and D.C.

The key factor in keeping Acela from delivering on its high-speed promise is the fact much of the system between Penn Station and Boston follows the New England coastline, curving around picturesque coves and across grassy estuaries. Once you get past the industrial clutter between New York and New Haven, the fleeting glimpses of neat little harbors and sailboats more than make up for the slow down. Besides, we were on vacation and our schedule was appropriately flexible. Frankly, it took longer to get our Enterprise rental car than it did taking the train from Princeton Junction, where our journey began in New Jersey into Penn Station.

Still, if America wants to enjoy the benefits of high-speed rail travel, we have to make sure that we don't chinch on the track. We need to make sure Acela and its successors have dual, dedicated track with zero traffic crossings, just as they do in Europe, Japan and China; and they need to be straight as an arrow or at least have long sweeping curves.

And let's make sure we offer lots of trains per day. One of the things I learned from Oscar is that the more frequent the service, the more passengers you attract. When he was with Amtrak, he encouraged them to add more trains between Providence and Boston because of major highway reconstruction that was disrupting commuter travel into and out of Boston. They added four more trains and their ridership increased so much that after the highway repairs were completed, they kept the additional trains. People had discovered the joys of train travel again.

And one final note in praise of the city fathers of Warwick. They have built a huge new parking garage adjacent to the airport and connected to the main terminal by automated people movers. That's not all that exciting in itself, but they've also incorporated a brand new Amtrak mainline station in the same facility. In the near future, you'll be able to have your choice of modes of travel into and out of Rhode Island: jetliner, high-speed train, or automobile all out of the same complex. To my knowledge this is a first for America. I hope it isn't the last.

Oh yes, and a short cab ride can connect you to Greenwich Bay, which merges into larger Narragansett Bay, and from there into Long Island Sound and vast oceans beyond.

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