Acela Slowpokes

Will we ever get high speed train service in this country? After riding the Acela roundtrip from New York to Boston and back this past week, I’m afraid the answer is no. As the crow flies, Boston is about 306 kilometers from New York. On the most expensive train that trip takes just about three and a half hours, thirty-forty minutes faster than the cheap train. As near as I can tell, this time savings is achieved mostly by skipping stations. Why Amtrak paid so much extra for these trains, I don’t know. The Acela poked along at a leisurely speed that afforded excellent views of the Atlantic coast and marshes. We rarely seemed to exceed 100 kilometers per hour. Cars on the adjacent highways regularly passed us. Once we were passed by a Metro North commuter train! And I’m not even counting the twenty minutes we stopped waiting for a bridge to be fixed in Rhode Island.

By contrast, in Europe getting from Paris to Brussels, a 15% shorter trip at about 262 kilometers, takes an hour and 25 minutes, less than half the time it takes Amtrak to get from New York to Boston. And that’s the time all the trains take! There is no slow train. London to Paris is a longer trip, 343 kilometers. It takes two hours and fifty minutes, still forty minutes faster than my trip to Boston; and the Europeans had to build a tunnel under the English Channel to do it. I know the tracks between here and Boston are old, narrow, and congested; but fixing that couldn’t possibly cost as much as building the Chunnel.

That’s real high speed rail. That’s transport that eliminates the need for air travel for journeys under five hundred kilometers. I know that’s not fast enough for traveling from New York to New Orleans or L.A., but why can’t we have that on the coasts? For San Francisco to San Diego and Boston to D.C., we shouldn’t even be thinking about air travel. Why are we?

One Response to “Acela Slowpokes”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    I have one word for you. “Trackage.”

    Even though Amtrak now owns the Northeast Corridor trackage from Boston to Washington, it can’t begin to afford what is required to rebuild it to modern passenger-rail performance standards. In addition, the Acela cars were supposed to have been made especially reliable, but they aren’t up to performing well over such battered track, and they break down way more often than they are supposed to unless speeds are kept low.

    That said, Amtrak’s performance in the rest of the country, on trackage shared with freight railroads, is even more pathetic. Which is why Congress keeps Amtrak starved, and keeps talking about shutting it down entirely. They whine that it doesn’t make money, as if passenger transport anywhere made money — even highways were heavily subsidized.

    If we want high-speed passenger rail in this country, we have to pretty much start over — and convince Congress to pay for it When pigs fly.

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