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The future of rail is in high-speed

FORT WORTH -- Traveling at 125 to 150 mph on a train is still a bit of a novelty in the United States, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

One place where you can get a taste of it is aboard Amtrak's Acela Express, which feels as if it is gliding on air as it hits top speed between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Drinks are served with plastic lids in the Cafe Car, but the ride is so smooth that there is little risk of spilling.

Amtrak has 16 high-speed trains that began service in the Northeast a couple of years ago, and at times they have been plagued by mechanical problems. Even so, a recent trip on Acela Express train No. 2173, which connects Boston to Washington, D.C., demonstrated that the future of train travel in the United States could be bright from a customer-service standpoint.

If Congress and the states are committed to funding it.

Every seat on the Acela Express has an electrical outlet, leg rests and a personal audio station (headphones required). The trains run on time and are clean. In the Cafe Car, travelers can sit on stools and watch the news on television or peer out the windows at the countryside.

Getting from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., on the Acela Express takes 35 minutes, compared with 60 to 70 minutes on commuter trains. A walk-up, one-way ticket costs $39, compared with $6 to $20 for slower trains.

In Texas, Amtrak service isn't in the same league. The Texas Eagle, which serves Fort Worth, Chicago and San Antonio, is usually hours late. Its ridership is declining. It runs on tracks owned by freight companies and often gets stuck in rail congestion.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, speaking at a recent transportation seminar in Washington, D.C., indicated that trains such as the Texas Eagle will either become more like the Acela Express or cease to exist in a few years.

"The freight railroads are not interested in going any faster than 79 mph," he said. "If we want a good system, we've got to get it up to 135 [mph], at least."

That would require billions of dollars in track improvements -- an expense that probably would be justified only on routes with potential for good ridership.

Fort Worth to San Antonio? Sure, lots of travelers might buy train tickets, if the price was comparable to airfare.

Fort Worth to Chicago? Hmmm. It depends on how much demand there could be for high-speed train service. It also depends on how much quicker the high-speed rail can get passengers to Chicago. (Currently, it takes about 24 hours.) Finally, it depends on how much of the cost the states served by the Texas Eagle are willing to bear.

"If we're going to have an intercity passenger-rail system, it's going to have to be rationalized in some form," Mineta said. "Routes are going to have to pay for themselves. I can put people on a bus or a plane and get them there cheaper and more quickly."

Putting in a high-speed system -- and doing it right -- is going to take an extraordinary commitment from Congress and the states. At this point, it's unclear whether the commitment exists.

Monday, December 9, 2002

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