NCI: Leo KingAmtrak's Acela Express inaugural train from Washington to New York City to Boston crosses Thames River bridge between New London and Groton, Conn., at 3:46 p.m. on November 16, 2000.
NCI's Wes Vernon and Jim RePass were each able to ride different legs of the inaugural Acela Express train last week. Wes rode from Washington to New York City, and Jim from New York to Boston. These are their accounts, in chronological order, and both are personal stories as well as pieces noting the day's events. - Ed.
The last time I rode a train this smooth, I was in France. It was 1991. At that time, we were served a bounteous breakfast from a rolling aisle cart, as the countryside whizzed by at 180 miles an hour between Brussels and Paris. Of course, the Europeans around me were nonchalant about it all. For this American, it was an amazing experience.
On November 16, 2000 those memories came flooding back as my own country launched its high-speed rail era. Not at 180 mph. Even the Acela Express'; very highest speed of 150 mph was to be confined to a couple of New England states. But you have to remember we';re playing catch-up here for the "lost generation" of the mid-20th Century that abandoned trains and forgot about them.
And now the Acela Express was about to escort American railroading out of the 20th Century with a modicum of dignity.
"The American people want trains. And they';re going to get them," assured Virginia's former Governor and Amtrak Board member Linwood Holton, as he addressed the group of invited guests in Washington Union Station's ornate B. Smith's restaurant which, earlier in the century, served as the Presidential waiting room for every chief executive from William Howard Taft to John F. Kennedy.
And talk about a bounteous breakfast! The buffet spread in the upscale B. Smith's was appropriate to the occasion.
Bombardier's flag could flutter freely in the breeze last Thursday
Out to the platform where Amtrak Chairman and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a cheerleader whose positive attitude on anything he pursues knows few bounds, declared "We deliver!"
For me, this ride was personal. I can recall what can diplomatically be called "leaner times." That was Amtrak's original inauguration May 1, 1971. On that day, a group of us boarded the locomotiveless Metroliner equipment inherited from the bankrupt Penn Central. That train was built to go 160 mph. Fat chance on the track of that era!
But when we arrived at Penn Station, then Transportation Secretary John Volpe escorted us across the platform where he took our questions in an old, inherited refurbished coach. There he told us of all the wondrous things Amtrak would accomplish. The official line was that in two years Amtrak would make a "profit." Most of us knew better, but there were political reasons for that goal.
Once today's train was out on the road, having left Washington at 9:55 a.m. so as to give some small leeway to the Metroliner that was to leave at 10, I knew that I would never look at the Metroliners in the same way again. I had forgotten that train rides could be this quiet.
For Governor Thompson, the ride was personal. His heart and soul was in this project.
"I know you've supported Amtrak for a long time," he said, "and we really appreciate it," and on he went down the aisle greeting the other guests. In 1996, he and I had discussed Amtrak on the old CBS Radio Crosstalk program.
For Larry Tkachenko, this ride was personal. The veteran railroader was rewarded for his long loyal service to the company with an assignment as conductor for this inaugural run of Amtrak's entry into the high-speed era.
Tkachenko has been with Amtrak since 1973, working Metroliners, inter-city long haul trains.
"Every piece of equipment that's run up and down the corridor, I've been on." He's had some freight experience too.
Conductor Tkachenko, who doubles as Legislative Representative of the United Transportation union (UTU), has memories of Amtrak's bad old days back in the 1970s when much of the time air conditioning and heating systems would break down on the trains.
"I think at that time, we had a collection of equipment, basically donated, and we were at the mercy of the system with regard to maintenance and the parts that were available. We were capital-starved at (that) point in time."
The computer age has helped to "tell us how good or how bad" the train's air conditioning or heating systems are.
And as for the High-Speed Rail Investment Act, now pending on Capitol Hill, this UTU lobbyist says, "Every person has a stake in it in the U.S. whether they realize it." The HSRIA is aimed at bolstering high-speed trains, not just in the Northeast Corridor, but in corridors throughout America.
"For a country this prosperous not to have a first-class transportation system is ludicrous. Why would people spend their time waiting in cars or waiting in toll booths when they can be riding a train at 150 miles an hour?"
For Amtrak President George Warrington, this ride was personal. When he took over as CEO on short notice, he didn't think he wanted the job on a permanent basis. Now, this super deluxe train was ushering in a new era on his watch.
Competition from the air shuttles? asked the reporters who mobbed the CEO in the car behind first class where the VIPs (board members and elected officials) were seated.
"Our base is Northeast Corridor business of about 12 million trips a year. We expect to grow to 15 million plus per year when we're fully operational, when all 20 trainsets have been introduced." Amtrak's 70/30 air-rail market share between Washington and New York would go even higher with "a significant penetration".
And as for the company's 30/70 rate on the old milk runs between New York and Boston, Warrington sees that being turned upside down once the Acela cuts close to two hours off the current running times at 150 mph. "Absolutely!" says the Amtrak boss, "Over 12 to 18 months;" twenty-four, at the outside.
Former Amtrak employee, now major critic, Joseph Vranich was quoted by the Washington Post as questioning whether the trip time, Boston to New York City, will be enough to compete with air shuttles. He was not quoted as saying whether that counts the time the planes have to wait on the runway in bad weather, while the more weatherproof train glides merrily on its way.
As for the future of other corridors, Warrington repeated what he's said many times, "This is all about money, and you get what you pay for." That is an allusion to the hard fact that if rail passenger service is to provide what Governor Holton described at the B. Smith's breakfast as "the third leg of the transportation stool," think infrastructure - just like the highways and airways‚ and think m-o-n-e-y!
Or as Amtrak boosters would say, think HSRIA.
What a smooth ride! The NEC trackage, although better than in most other parts of the country, is not as smooth as what we found between Brussels and Paris. When we hit the bumps, you could tell they were there, but the Acela handled them. You were not jolted. Its tilt mechanism took those corners, and you felt American railroading had made an early entry into the 21st Century, or what our European and Japanese friends would consider basic to the mid-20th. You felt we were heading toward their league at long last.
For Michael Dukakis, the ride was personal.
"You and I have been following this story for a long time," said the former Massachusetts governor who, in 1975, was telling me how he would forget the chauffeured limo and ride the Boston "T" to work every day. Dukakis had once expressed a curiosity about a private rail car trip I had planned down south in the 70s. He was tracking all this long before he ever became Vice Chairman of the Amtrak board.
And you could say the trip was personal for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), as well. He was on board one of the earlier test trains at 162 mph a few years back. The co-sponsor of HSRIA wants that bill passed and signed into law before he sings his swan song when leaving the Senate in January. Now he was contemplating 135 mph before the New England segment goes up to 150. I told him I thought the best opportunity for that was the four-track right of way between Trenton and Newark.
Something to nibble on while shooting up the NEC in this "train of the future?"
Hors d'oeuvres extraordinaire, served at your seat.
How about cantaloupe with cream cheese, bread and butter or cold open red potato stuffed with cream cheese, just to mention two selections?
We zipped through Baltimore a half hour out of D.C. Metroliner makes it in 35 to 37 minutes. Wilmington in 1:02 hours; Metroliner at 1:23. Philadelphia in 1:24; Metroliner at 1:45.
Even allowing for the fact that the Metroliner has to make some stops whereas we were non-stop from D.C. to New York, that's still a favorable comparison, as was our arrival into New York's Penn Station two minutes early at 2:26. Tell me that you can chalk up the Metroliner's standard 2:59, 33 minutes longer, entirely to our non-stop schedule. I don't think so.
Just a few minutes before our arrival, Larry Tkachenko went on the intercom and invited us to raise our glasses of champagne and toast a remarkable journey on a rare day.
I'll drink to that.
NCI: Leo KingThe 2009-2020 trainset was the first to be conditionally accepted from Bombardier-Alstom consortium.
Without doubt, history was made last Thursday, November 16 as the first official Acela Express train dashed between Washington, New York, and Boston packed with VIPs such as Amtrak Vice Chair Mike Dukakis, Amtrak Board Chair Tommy Thompson, and Meridian Mississippi Mayor and Amtrak Board member John Robert Smith, with celebrities like Dr. Ruth Westheimer, plus major journalists from all over America including America' s foremost transportation reporter, the Washington Post's Don Phillips, Railway Age magazine publisher Bob DeMarco, and our own Wes Vernon, the former New York-based CBS News anchorman who, in my opinion, writes some of the best and most professional rail news of anyone in America.
It was my privilege to ride the New York-Boston segment, and then act as MC for the reception afterwards at Boston's One Financial Center building near South Station.
Engine 2020 was polished to a fare-the-well as it sat on Track 10 in Penn Station shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday as the glossy crowd boarded first class coach 3207, business class coaches 3541 and 3543, bistro car Café Acela 3305, business class cars 3546 and 3409, and engine 2009 on the rear.
We pulled out exactly on schedule at 1:50 p.m.
As someone who has been traveling between New York and Boston for more than 30 years, it is difficult to find the words to fairly describe the difference between the Acela Express trainsets and the old Amfleet cars in service - even the refurbished Amfleet cars used on all-electric Acela Regional service.
The first inkling that the world had changed came as we exited the East River tunnel, horns blaring, into the early afternoon sun of New York. Light filled the car as Acela's oversized windows pulled in from every vantage point the kaleidoscopic jumble of Queens and then, as we banked gently to the north and climbed the Hell Gate viaduct, the growing panoramic skyline to our left of America's greatest city.
As the picture of Manhattan grew ever larger outside in the endless sky, our car became, for a moment, still, and the passengers quiescent. One by one, I could see people begin to smile, transfixed. For 30 years I have made a point of looking at the New York skyline, night or day, because of all that it is, and stands for - not simply because it is such an important part of America, but because it is representative of our very civilization as we begin the 21st Century.
For 30 years I have been, if I may borrow the phrase, in cars that forced me to look as through a glass, darkly. On Thursday last, Acela Express removed that barrier, and changed American rail travel forever.
We glided on through New Rochelle and headed east again into Connecticut, passing through the leafy wealth of Cos Cob and Greenwich, and the corporate pile of Stamford on our way up the Coast.
It was then, clearing the station work in Stamford, that I first began to notice the irresistible surge of silky power this train possesses. Even a slight increment of speed was clearly felt, in very much the same way you feel it in a Porsche or a Lotus, where your entire body moves in unison with the highly tuned suspension of the vehicle.
With 12,000 rated horsepower from its fore and aft locomotives - meaning it can draw 18,000 horses for acceleration and deceleration - this trainset has been described as a drag racer. That's not so. It's a Ferrari.
New Haven was here and then gone as the sun got lower in the November sky, and we passed through West Rock, into East Haven and Branford. At Old Saybrook, the coast came in and once again the windows, those glorious oversized windows, filled the train with what I have always felt is one of America's most beautiful vistas, the Connecticut Shoreline. But once again, it was as if I had never observed this scene before. Up until this week if you were on the train and wanted to see the great natural beauty of the Connecticut shore, you had to make sure you sat on the right hand side of the train heading to Boston, or the left hand side heading to New York.
With the Acela Express, the entire view seems to be coming from both sides as the train curves its way east to Old Lyme, past New London, a sharp right and up and across the Thames River as the sun descends, then through the old sea towns of Niantic, Mystic and Stonington. Acela Express is geared to the business traveler, but I think Amtrak is going to see a lot of high-end tourist business on these trains.
"Breathtaking" does not begin to describe the look of late afternoon across a thousand-yard marsh of waving grass, cut through with azure blue inlets leading lazily to the sailboats and pleasure craft, and a distant ferryboat, on Long Island Sound.
At Westerly, R.I., already at a good clip, I feel the seat press against my back and the scenery right next to the train becomes harder to bring into focus in the gathering darkness. From years of travel I know we are approaching the straightest tangent on the route, and sure enough, a bell rings and an announcer says that we are ready to approach the top speed for the trip. Again we hear the announcement bell, and with glasses of champagne or apple juice, we toast the moment: "We are now at 150 miles per hour." Don Lacey in the cab has taken us to the top speed. I have been working toward this instant for nearly one quarter of my life, and I am 51.
While regular service will stop at Providence, we roll through and out, and soon are once again well above 100 miles per hour as we move relentlessly toward Boston. It is dark as we pass the Attleboros and Canton Junction, and Route 128. The red signs light the new station facilities along the route, whizzing past in a blink.
On the Southwest Corridor outside of Boston, we slow to await outbound commuter traffic and then, ahead of schedule, and with the popping, booming noise of fireworks overhead, attain our berth at South Station. A red carpet awaits us, and Mike Dukakis, smiling broadly, describes our trip and the importance of this new arrival. A few more speeches and introductions, and the happy crowd heads out into the night, some to the reception at One Financial Center, some to their hotels.
It was only three hours and 11 minutes since we had left Penn Station in New York and emerged into the afternoon Knickerbocker sun, on the 16th of November 2000. Three hours and 11 minutes, but in that short span of time an age had changed. Sometimes it is hard to tell when one era starts and another begins. Sometimes we invent arbitrary dates to mark when one period begins, and another ends. But this day, it is easy. This day, although it may take a while for some to realize it and understand why, America left the 20th Century behind. This day, November 16, 2000, America's transportation system joined the 21st Century. It is only a beginning. But it is the beginning.
Time only will tell if we seize this moment, and build upon it.
I believe we will.
A tip of the engineer's cap to Bud Smith at Groton.
NCI: Leo KingIn October, the 2009-2020 set rested inside Boston's Southampton Street yard facility.
NCI, Claytor, Acela, and the utilities
Victory has a thousand fathers, so on this important, celebratory date, NCI wants to make clear how many people and organizations there were who have fought for rail development in the United States. The National Corridors Initiative played a unique role in winning the battle for the Northeast Corridor, and in laying the groundwork for rail corridors elsewhere, but there were so many others.
We need more.
We need you.
This message is aimed at developing support for a true national passenger rail system among people whom, like yourself, are well disposed toward the idea of regional and intercity rail, but who may not realize how close we are to actually winning, across America, what has been a long, twilight struggle for rail, fought by a handful of partisans.
We are close. But we are also therefore at that most dangerous of times, the critical hour before dawn, just before the battle, when all resources must be gathered, organized, and launched. We can win, but only by significantly broadening the historical base of support for the cause of robust American passenger and freight rail. This means we need you.
Let me introduce, and explain, myself.
I am a management consultant. In April 1989, having promised my two-year-old son I would be home to Boston by nightfall from a New Jersey business trip, I found myself instead on a six-hour plane ride to nowhere that, finally, brought me home - by bus.
My disappointed two-year-old was asleep, and I was angry, because weather delays are not that rare in Boston, but when I looked at a train schedule to see if I had that alternative, I found Amtrak offered ghastly five-hour service each way on a 231-mile trip to New York - a ludicrously poor standard, and one no businessman could accept.
Having vowed to attack this problem so that I, and other businessmen and women, could get home at least some of the time to see our kids, I telephoned W. Graham Claytor, the Chairman of Amtrak, and hotly asked him why his service stunk so much. He politely explained that he could offer much better, three-hour service if he could electrify the line to Boston, but that Congress wouldn't give him the money - $500 million or so for the basic wiring, although much more would be needed.
Well up on my high horse, I told him I would get him the money. And that is what we did.
I explained that in the course of business I had often consulted to the electric utility industry, and that since they would sell the juice if he electrified his line, maybe my CEO friends would help get the money. He agreed that sounded plausible, and sent his office car, the Beech Grove, the entire Amtrak senior management, and his magnificent personal staff (brought over from the Southern Railroad) to Boston for me, where he put on an elegant dinner for our invited guests, the utility CEOs. All but one showed up, and he sent his top exec. And we all agreed, that, by golly, electrification was a good idea.
And so we went to work, assembling a board of directors for what we called the Northeast Corridor Initiative. Very deliberately, we created a bi-partisan board, so that both sides of the political aisle would understand that we were serious. We made sure that all of our board members were people who would get their phone calls returned. That was an elitist thing to do, but it was deliberate, and it was necessary. In the course of doing this, we discovered there was a Congressional authorization for$125 million for the Northeast Corridor project that was being embargoed by the Bush Administration.
By great good fortune, one of my board members, Governor Joseph Garrahy of Rhode Island, ran into President George Bush's head of the Office of Management and Budget, Dick Darman, and got us invited to the White House to discuss just why they were blocking that money.
After three visits, we negotiated its release. I called Graham Claytor that day, and asked him what he was going to do with the money.
"Don't worry, Jim," he said, "It's already spent."
What Claytor did was to immediately go to bid on the design engineering for the Northeast Corridor Electrification Project, using most of that $125 million. The rest was used for signaling and track work. Without going into all the details, with luck, we had won a significant victory, and had, in effect, re-started a long-stalled Northeast Corridor Project.
The next year we helped get $155 million. The following year, $168 million. The year after, $204.5 million, then $199.5 million, and so on up through today. On November 16, 2000, we rode the first official Acela Express from New York to Boston, inaugurating high-speed rail in America.
There were many, many crises in those numbers, and stories that you just would not believe. Suffice it to say that in Washington, no one gives you anything. You have to take it. But we learned the importance of vigilance, and of swift action. But - and this is important - we did not put out any press releases. In Washington, if you tell all the world how important you are, pretty soon you become ineffective, because everyone knows you will run to the media every time you execute. We decided to be effective, rather than blabbermouths. But let me tell you, we were there fighting like tigers, and all of the real players know that, too.
What we did do, in 1996, was to begin running conferences on what we saw as a potential "national corridors" movement, and we gave it that name as we began looking beyond the Northeast Corridor to see if anyone else was doing what we were.
We found people.
It is a sad but amazing thing, but unless we kill a busload of nuns at a grade crossing, the news media doesn't cover the national rail story at all. Sure, regional stories get covered. But Tom Brokaw? Only if it bleeds.
And yet, when we began looking for other business and environmental rail advocates, we found them in Chicago, in Wisconsin, in Ohio, in Indiana and the rest of the Midwest; in the Pacific Northwest, in the Carolinas, in Georgia, in the Deep South; in Florida, in Vermont, in New York State - region after region after region, working away with not a peep of acknowledgment from the national news media that a national rail revival was underway, because the national media doesn't know it. So, naturally, each group thought it was fighting alone.
We decided to bring them together.
In 1996, our group held the first of its "National Corridors" conferences, in Rhode Island, inviting all the regions we could find to come and share experiences. In 1997, we held two more national corridors conferences, in Atlanta and in New Orleans. In July 1999 we met in Washington, with keynoters Gil Carmichael (head of the Federal Railroad Administration under George Bush) discussing his Interstate II proposal for a national intercity rail system, and Mike Dukakis, Amtrak Vice Chair and former Democratic Presidential nominee, who has taken what could have been a political appointment only, and turned it into a vibrant crusade for national passenger rail, plus two-score speakers from the leadership of the movement that we helped to create - the National Corridors Movement.
What is the National Corridors Movement?
It is our name for our attempt to organize, advocate, create, design, and help to build interstate rail corridors that are fashioned to sustain themselves economically. It is also our attempt to make sure that the regions know about each others successes and failures, triumphs and struggles, so that each one doesn't have to invent the wheel that the other has built.
It is also our name for the growing number of academics, legislators, businessmen, financiers and environmentalists who have joined with us over the past decade, and who are leading the charge. These are advocates of their own regional and intercity corridors, whose success and ultimate interconnection will create the national corridors system we have been espousing.
NCI advocates the creation of a cost-effective rail passenger operation free of federal operating subsidy, by removing the barriers to capital formation needed for right-of-way construction, and by earning state support for improved regional rail service. We seek to do this not just for passenger rail, but to expand freight capacity as well, on the theory that improved freight and passenger capacity increases throughput and thus lowers all transportation costs, which in turn cuts the cost of living for all of us. Much work remains to be done to make this possible.
But the groundwork has been laid.
We need your help to win.
For 11 years, the National Corridors Initiative has been at the forefront of a battle unknown to most. As we related above, beginning in the Northeast, we reversed a long-standing Administration policy against rail investment, and have now spread our story nationally, and built bridges between scores of people who otherwise might have labored on alone.
The breakthrough some of us have been working towards for a decade, twenty years, or more, is at hand. We have indeed been to the mountaintop, and by God, we do want to cross over. Now is the time to create the groundswell that will overwhelm our opponents, especially the narrow interests who would restrict federal funding for intercity rail, as it has in the past, to the point of absurdity.
We need you to join us.
As this first step in taking the National Corridors Initiative and the National Corridors Movement over the top, we ask you to e-mail email@example.com or "snail-mail" us to sign up as individual members of NCI, at a cost of $45 either by check or credit card (include expiration date) payable to NCI, 35 Terminal Road Suite 210, Providence, RI 02905. In doing so, you will support the following:
The work of NCI in spreading the word among regional advocates - and to the national news media, which is, at last, beginning to listen - that advocates like you are not alone, and that there is a growing national base of support for rail. You, by joining, will become a member of that all-important base.
The National Corridors Institute, established in 1999.
After a decade of ground-laying advocacy by NCI, the National Corridors Institute will publish peer-reviewed scholarly articles and information bulletins about the social, economic, and environmental benefits of investing in passenger rail, and distribute those findings to the national news media in an effort to counter the active disinformation campaign of rail's implacable opponents.
Discounts on attendance at National Corridors conferences.
It is expensive to mount successful conferences, but it is also expensive for individuals to attend them unless they are backed by large organizations. NCI will offer a minimum $50 discount to its own individual members, for any conferences it holds, so you'll get your annual membership fee back if you attend, and more.
NCI's conferences are regarded as the strongest, most substantial of any rail organization's, because they attract the very best of the industry, and always go well beyond the rail industry to bring in the most creative and innovative thinkers in America. Check out the speakers at our past conferences, and you will see what we mean, or we will send you information on past conferences when you join.
E-mail communication of advance copies of our newsletter, Destination: Freedom, with important developments and news that affect the movement.
The opportunity to purchase books selected by us that are of interest to anyone supportive of the rail movement in the United States.
That, in a nutshell, is what NCI is all about. If you want to make a difference, join, support us, and attend our conferences. The next annual conference is scheduled for May 10 and 11 in Washington, D.C. Save the dates!
|Amtrak publishes Acela's first timetable|
Here is the first Acela Express timetable, which is posted on the Acela website, at http://www.acela.com. The schedule is effective December 11. Tickets go on sale Nov. 29.
This edition has been read by || || people since date of release.
Copyright © 2000, National Corridors Initiative, Inc. & Leo King.