Amtrak yesterday virtually guaranteed that at least part of its high-speed Acela Express service would be ready in time for Christmas, after nearly a one year delay.
Just one of 20 new Acela Express trains, which can travel up to 150 mph, will be up and running in the Northeast Corridor by Christmas, and the full fleet likely won’t be delivered and operational until late next year, Amtrak officials said.
Nevertheless, Amtrak officials and their supporters in Congress watched a sleek, snub-nosed new Acela train wheel into Union Station 15 minutes behind schedule and pronounced it a great day.
“This new train is a joy,” said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Democrat, who spoke of the history of rail travel and its decline. “There’s no room above our airports and there’s no solution to be had by adding lanes to our highways. We have to have this.”
A ceremonial inaugural run of the Acela Express train will take place on Nov. 16, and passengers can begin traveling on the train on Dec. 11, Amtrak officials said.
With Acela, a one-way trip from Washington to New York City will take 2 hours, 44 minutes and cost $143. Using Amtrak’s current Metroliner service, the trip now takes 2 hours, 59 minutes and costs $122. So for each minute of time saved, a passenger pays an extra $1.40.
The fares compare to those of shuttle service offered by Delta Airlines and Arlington, Va.-based US Airways. A one-way, walk-up fare between the two cities on either airline costs about $202, with special discounts on weekends.
“It’s not about price, it’s about value,” said Amtrak President George Warrington, addressing a pack of reporters on Union Station’s Track 19. With the sleek new train behind him, Mr. Warrington pointed out that Acela Express trains will be more spacious and feature audio and video entertainment and improved food service.
Amtrak’s Acela Express service was scheduled to debut last October. But delivery of the trains was delayed numerous times due to problems with tilting technology that allows high-speed turning, as well as issues with wear and sideways movement of wheels.
Mr. Warrington said all of those issues have been resolved after rigorous testing of the train. He and other Amtrak officials proclaimed it “the safest high-speed train in the world.”
Mr. Warrington said he was supremely confident of the Dec. 11 start date, despite the previous delays.
“I wouldn’t say that until and unless I have the keys to this train in my hand,” he said. “And I have them.”
Amtrak officials touted Acela’s 150 mph top speed, but conceded such speeds are only reached during a trip between New York and Boston. Between Washington and New York, the train reaches 135 mph. Amtrak’s current Metroliner top speed is 125 miles per hour.
Senators Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, and William V. Roth Jr., Delaware Republican, spoke yesterday in support of legislation that would help Amtrak raise $10 billion over 10 years to help deploy high-speed rail service across the country.
That money may prove necessary, many transportation officials say, because Amtrak will struggle in becoming self-sufficient by 2003, as Congress has ordered.
Kenneth Mead, inspector general of the Department of Transportation, said in a statement to Congress last month that it would be “possible for Amtrak to operating self-sufficiency by 2003, but … delays in Acela Express … pose additional obstacles.”
The delays in the start date of Acela Express service have hurt, but recent problems with delays and service with air travel throughout the Northeast have boosted Amtrak’s ridership, transportation experts and Amtrak officials said.
Mr. Warrington said original estimates of $180 million in high-speed rail revenue are on the conservative side.
He said Amtrak first thought only 35 percent of riders would choose high-speed rail once it is universally offered in the Northeast. Now, he expects about half of all riders along the corridor to select high-speed service.
Amtrak fell $484 million short of self-sufficiency in 1999, despite record revenue of $1.84 billion.
Amtrak will showcase Acela Express on select Metroliner routes for no additional charge between Nov. 18 and Dec. 8. It plans to phase in one or two train sets per month until all 20 are in service.