- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Acela.
Not exactly.
The comparison doesn't quite hold up, however much bravado went into last Thursday's inaugural run of Amtrak's new high-speed train that traveled between Washington and New York and on to Boston in record time.
When Acela Express begins service Dec. 11, it will shave only 15 minutes or so off the regular Metroliner run between Washington and New York and cost $143 in business class on weekdays or $21 more than the current Metroliner one-way fare. (Air shuttle fares are just over $200.) First-class fares between the two cities one way will be $217.
Acela Express does resemble a plane in several respects. One is the sense of efficiency and compactness represented by its futuristic tapered nose cone. Another is how the curving overhead storage compartments close with a quick snap. And the engineer's cab looks like a cockpit.
But no airplane ever had windows as large as those on the Acela (pronounced A-cell-ah), each one of which is an emergency exit. Aisles look narrower than those in the old lumbering Amtrak coaches, but that could be illusory since they are highlighted with two parallel lines of red lights running along the floor of the brightly lighted interior.
To judge by this reporter's experience riding between Washington and New York, the main difference between Acela's five business class cars and the single first class car is the availability of a seat-side meal served on china plates in first class by gray-blue uniformed attendants.
The bottle of 1991 Shramsberg Blanc de Blanc that Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, Amtrak board chairman, cracked over the silver and blue nose of engine number 2009 at 9:40 a.m. was worth about $2.6 billion, symbolically anyway the estimated cost of getting Acela up and running.
Christening day didn't seem to spare any expense either. It was a "glam" event, a VIP and press run involving a series of high-profile gestures to mark the train's quasipublic debut.
Hundreds of guests were fed an early-morning buffet breakfast in the ornate high-ceilinged room of B. Smith's restaurant in Union Station, a hall that once served as a staging area for presidents and titled heads of state arriving in the capital by train.
The entrepreneurial B. for Barbara Smith, dressed in a purple velvet and fake fur trimmed blouse, remarked with her trademark smile how ironic it was that many decades ago her black-skinned relatives weren't even allowed to eat downstairs on the site.
Now a black U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Rodney Slater, was one of the featured speakers on the program heralding the advent of high-speed intercity rail travel in the United States.
Other Washington VIPs on the train included Steve Baldacci, president of the Redskins, and newly-elected District School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who sat with D.C. financial control board Vice Chairwoman Constance Newman in rapt conversation almost the entire length of the two-hour 26-minute trip to New York. (Normally the trip takes a minimum of three hours, but no stops were made Thursday.) Free box cameras, a laptop computer case, chocolates, canapes and glasses of champagne were handed out to toast the ride.
Except for a few barbed comments about congressional foot-dragging on transportation issues, the day was very nearly without political overtones. A festive celebratory mood dominated. A magician entertained with card tricks; a male a cappella group Vocal Tonic from Atlanta sang.
After a general welcome in the restaurant from Amtrak board members John Robert Smith, mayor of Meridian, Miss., and former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, guests moved out to the track beside a motionless gleaming red-striped silver metal train for a formal ceremony heralded by members of the Colonel Mustard Ceremonial Brass Band playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "God Bless America." A costumed piccolo player launched into "I've Been Working On the Railroad" and "Chattanooga Choo-Choo." Then a fife-and-drum corps brought on the principal speakers.
Besides Mr. Thompson, Mr. Slater and New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, they included lawyer Sylvia DeLeon of the firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Huer and Feld, an Amtrak board member who added a piquant touch to the proceedings by displaying a cast on her right foot that she had broken while doing the rhumba during the Washington Ballet's visit to Havana, Cuba, last month.
Other "movers and shakers" out front were former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, vice chairman of Amtrak's board, and Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski. The upbeat homilies about the future of passenger rail travel in the United States were barely discernible against the background noise of the engine warming up for the big ride.
"This is kind of an anomaly," Mr. Lautenberg observed under the spotlights. "A politician can't see the crowd, and the crowd can't hear the politician. But you can feel the excitement running through this place that shortly will be felt across the country."
Promptly, at 9:55 a.m., the train glided smoothly out of the station like some great silver bird.
While Amtrak board members held nonstop press conferences and other people habitually reached for cell phones, the rest of some 300 guests tested the amenities. The cafe car, with a minimal number of stools, a television and beer on tap, was standing room only. In restrooms, guests discovered lavender toilets and space enough in which to change into formal dress if the need arises. The restrooms also are equipped with baby changing tables and electric hand dryers. Signs in each car tell when lavatories are occupied.
Regular menus weren't available in either first or business, but according to Amtrak, they will include salads, lobster sandwiches and, yes, hot dogs as usual in business class.
"This is a piece of work," Miss Smith said of the ride. "But, of course, you're pretty distracted because of what is going on."
Another luminary aboard was Jonathan Tisch, president and chief executive officer of Loews Hotels, who claimed he had taken four train rides in the first two weeks of November alone and will go on doing so "whenever I don't want to sit on a runway."
"It's as good as it has to be," pronounced Baltimore resident Bill Dotterer, 56, one of two engineers aboard, when asked his opinion of the performance of Acela Express on arrival in New York two minutes ahead of schedule. (Only one engineer will be aboard when the train begins regular service.)
"After all, it's operating on a rail bed put down in the 1920s," he said.
The future of the train now being billed as the fastest thing on rails in the United States 135 mph along portions of the track in New Jersey on the first leg and 150 mph briefly on the New York-Boston leg depends on Congress authorizing a plan to provide billions of dollars for upgrades in tracks and overhead wiring before the sleek speedy machine can fairly compete with airline shuttles on the East Coast and create other high-speed rail corridors nationally.
Meanwhile, tickets go on sale Nov. 29 for what will be a single daily round-trip in the immediate future. Amtrak will gradually introduce other trains as equipment becomes available.

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