Before a cheering crowd of over 1,000 employees, Amtrak unveiled its new high speed train -- named the "Acela" (uh-SELL-ah) -- that will begin 150 mph operation in the Northeast Corridor in the latter part of 1999.
Amtrak says the new trains will travel between Boston and New York in three hours an improvement of 90 minutes over the current trip and from New York to Washington in as little as 2 1/2 hours, a savings of a half-hour.
The exterior of Amtrak's new high-speed train for the Northeast Corridor, the Acela.
Amtrak has invested $2 billion in the Acela service, and officials hope it will be a model for similar trains in the Great Lakes, the Gulf Coast, California and the Pacific Northwest.
"We know we have a product here that will absolutely knock the socks off the competition," Amtrak President George Warrington boasted to his workers. "USAir, Delta, General Motors, Ford, you name it, only Amtrak's Acela will provide a very special journey for customers who will travel downtown to downtown."
In addition to pledging speed, Amtrak promised an unparalleled service. Acela's snub-nosed, silver-and-turquoise trains will have business-class seats with audio and power jacks, special check-in areas and concierge service, plus dining cars with meeting tables, upgraded food and beer on tap.
The schedule has not been set, but Amtrak officials said it probably would maintain most current stops, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Haven, Conn., and Providence, R.I. The railroad will also retain its slower Northeast Direct service.
A one-way trip will cost about $130 to $140 each way between New York and Boston or Washington, an increase from the current Metroliner fare of $114 but still less than the $199 walkup fare charged by US Airways and Delta Air Lines. They are the two primary airlines offering shuttle service between Washington, New York and Boston.
Amtrak projects that Acela will generate $180 million in profits its first year of service.
Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, chairman of the Amtrak board of directors, said he hopes the next stop for high-speed rail will be the Midwest. Amtrak has already announced it will spend $25 million to work on a high-speed network linking nine Midwestern states.
Similar projects are being considered between Charlotte, N.C., and Washington, D.C.; Birmingham, Ala., and Houston; and up the Pacific coast. Thompson said Acela should generate the necessary congressional support.
The name "Acela" was created by a marketing firm and is a combination of the words "accelerate" and "excite."
Interior view of the passenger car.
Eleven people are confirmed dead and more than 100 injured in the wake of a collision between Amtrak's City of New Orleans passenger train and a tractor-trailer loaded with steel rods.
The accident occurred at roughly 10 p.m. on March 15 in Bourbonnais, Ill., which is about 50 miles south of Chicago. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the BLE Safety Task Force were dispatched to the scene within minutes of the crash.
All 11 victims were found in the train's double-decker sleeping car, which caught fire after diesel fuel leaked from the train's two locomotives. Both locomotives were GE Genesis models, which have four fuel tanks cradled deep inside the frame and reinforced with steel to reduce the risk of puncture.
The locomotives were built in response to a 1992 federal request to improve designs to prevent fires.
The NTSB has determined that fuel leaked from both locomotives that had been pulling the train, although the spill from the second engine likely contributed more to the fire in the sleeper car, an NTSB spokesman said.
The train's event recorder revealed that the train was traveling at 79 mph -- the maximum legal speed through that corridor -- and that the locomotive engineer was blowing his whistle and trying to stop the train at the time of impact.
The operating crew miraculously survived the fiery crash, but all sustained substantial injuries. Nine passengers, however, remain hospitalized in critical condition. There were a total of 216 passengers and crew members on board at the time of the crash, and more than 100 of those were either killed or injured.
In the days after the wreck, the focus of the investigation turned to the truck driver. John Stokes, 58, told investigators that he didn't see the train approach and that the warning lights started flashing after he started across the tracks near a Birmingham Steel Co. mill.
Reports from an eyewitness and the locomotive engineer, however, indicate Stokes drove around the closed crossing gates.
Amtrak's chairman, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, said Stokes was trying to dodge the crossing gates, thinking the oncoming train was a slow-moving freight train instead of a faster passenger train.
"The engineer said he saw the lights flashing, he saw the barriers down and then he saw the truck stop and try to get around it," Thompson said. "There was no way to avoid it."
Investigators also found suspicious tire tracks in the mud near the crossing gate that would indicate if Stokes dodges the downed gates.
"There have been reports that possibly this truck went around the gates and we are trying to determine if that's what happened," John Goglia of the NTSB said. "We will pursue this with vigor to determine if this is a signal problem or if in fact we have a driver problem," Goglia said.
Stokes was driving on a probationary license after receiving three speeding tickets in a year, authorities said.
BLE President Clarence Monin expressed sorrow for the deaths that occurred in the collision between Amtrak's City of New Orleans passenger train and a semi-truck near Chicago, Ill. on March 15.
"Our thoughts are with the families of those who perished in the accident," he said. "Within our own BLE, we too have grieved over the loss of many friends and co-workers."
Facing death is not unusual for locomotive engineers, but it does not usually happen on such a large scale.
"Locomotive engineers stare death in the face nearly every day in the course of their duties, either as a witness to a tragedy or as a victim paying the ultimate price," he said.
In the past 10 years, 29 locomotive engineers have lost their lives in the line of duty, including 14 in the past three years.
"While there were deaths of passengers in Bourbonnais, which is a tragic occurrence, the horror of this accident will live vividly in the mind of the locomotive engineer for the rest of his life," Monin said.
The NTSB is investigating whether or not the crossing gates were malfunctioning or if the truck driver dodged the closed gates in an attempt to beat the train across the tracks.
"The truck driver will have the families of at least 11 dead people to answer to if he intentionally went around closed gates," Monin said.
To prevent future tragedies, the BLE supports the construction of bridges, overpasses and underpasses to eliminate as many highway-rail grade crossings as possible.
"It would be a large and costly undertaking," Monin said, "but you can't put a price on human lives."
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