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Opinion: High-speed train service growing at snail's pace in U.S.

(The New York Times circulated the following travel column by Joe Sharkey on July 19.)

NEW YORK -- All over Europe, in Japan, and elsewhere, business travelers have the option of avoiding planes and taking sleek high-speed trains that link urban centers. In France, average train speeds on some corridors exceed 180 miles an hour.

With direct links to airports for those continuing on for greater distances or flying overseas, these high-speed trains are vital components of an intelligent transportation system.

The United States doesn't come anywhere close to having a world-class rail-transportation system.

Oh, we have some great trains, including a few long-haul Amtrak ones that have been called cruise ships on tracks. One example is the Sunset Limited, which runs 2,768 miles between Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla., Amtrak's longest route.

While it does carry some passengers on shorter distances between cities in the South and Southwest, the Sunset Limited is marketed as a transcontinental tourist excursion train and kept in business by train romantics and their supporters in Congress. The Sunset Limited is projected to operate at a loss of about $30 million in the current fiscal year while carrying an estimated 109,000 passengers. All 14 Amtrak long-distance trains are projected to lose more than $500 million, according to Amtrak's operating budget, though long-distance ridership is rising.

But the United States has eight or 10 shorter-haul rail corridors that transportation experts say make sense as real transportation systems, whether operated by Amtrak or by hybrid state, federal and private entities, and some of them are making plans for high-speed trains, very far in the future.

Meanwhile, on our one existing relatively high-speed train line, passenger traffic is expected to break records this year, as air travel in the Northeast becomes ever more vexing. That's Amtrak's Acela line (top speed about 125 miles an hour on a few stretches of track) on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. This year, according to Amtrak's budget, Acela is projected to generate a "net contribution" to the bottom line of about $60.7 million while carrying more than 2.5 million passengers.

Recently, when I visited an Amtrak administrative and training center in Wilmington, Del., to talk with the marketing people, no one there wanted to touch the hot potatoes: the Amtrak budget and the question of short-haul vs. long-distance trains. In its budget request for the 2004 fiscal year ending Sept. 30, Amtrak asked for $1.8 billion but got $1.2 billion. Amtrak says it needs $1.8 billion to maintain operations next year; the White House says it should get about half that.

"The greatest share of our revenue comes out of the Northeast," said Barbara Richardson, Amtrak's vice president for marketing. Right now, "the No. 1 priority," she said, is to return to basics and bring the national infrastructure "up to a state of good repair."

For the Acela, the goal is to market the train more to business travelers, who now make up about 80 percent of its riders. A simple, easy-to-understand fare structure, similar to the fare structures of low-cost airlines, has been put in place on Acela and also across the Amtrak system.

Energized by the inroads the Acela has made against air travel, Amtrak has become more aggressive in promoting Acela to corporate travel managers, said David Lim, chief of marketing and sales promotions.

Acela says its fares are 35 to 59 percent below comparable walkup fares on airlines. But the train's greatest strength is the comfort in its two categories of service: business and first class. Seats have 42 inches of legroom and all have electrical power outlets, with large fold-down tables for working.

Passengers "feel like they're in control, and they can decide how they spend their time," Richardson said. "The hassle factor is low. I think about it as, 'You are always free to move about the cabin.' "

Monday, July 19, 2004

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