All is not well in Acelaland

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, July 30, 2010

I am writing this from the first-class car of a Boston-bound Acela Express, thanks to the generosity of Amtrak Guest Rewards, which periodically mails its members upgrade coupons. My, this is a nice way to travel. Past the rooftops of Baltimore tenements. Past the inlets of Chesapeake Bay. (Thank you, ma’am, my Breakfast Egg Tart was delicious. Could you bring me a virgin mary, please?)  Over the Susquehanna River and through the farmland of Delaware. Past the suburbs of Philadelphia and the crowded commuter platforms of New Jersey. Under the streets of Manhattan. (Yes, I’d like a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with my Sweet & Spicy Pork Skewers.) Beside the crowded lanes of I-95 and finally into the sublime marshlands of the New England coast.
The internet is abuzz about federal money bringing high speed rail to America. But we already have high speed trains in this country, and they’re pretty *** good. One-fourth of Amtrak’s ticket revenue nationally comes from Acela Express trains. I’ve been riding up and down the Northeast Corridor for 40 years, and the trains were never better than this, nor more punctual. Before I step off in Providence, we’ll bound through southern Rhode Island at a cool 150 mph.
Now that we’re happy and relaxed, it’s my duty to inform you that all is not well in Acelaland. Our trip from Washington, D.C., to New York City will be 22 minutes longer than the 2 hour, 30 minute goal established 34 years ago. There will be moments I will need to hold on for dear life. Aside from a few places in New England, top speed will not be 150 mph but a more prosaic 135.
The federal government’s stewardship of Amtrak has been fickle, to put it mildly. Big plans for the corridor are announced, but then quietly scaled back. Operating subsidies are at subsistence levels. At last report, the bill to bring the entire Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair (including the state-owned section between New Rochelle, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn.) stood at a staggering $8 billion. To both address the deferred maintenance and ongoing maintenance needs would require an annual $690 million engineering budget from now until 2023. And this is before any talk of improvements.

As for what improvements would need doing to reduce scheduled trip times from New York to Washington to that long-deferred 2 hours and 30 minutes ... well, I’m not going to tell you. This country is more or less broke at the moment, and the magnitude of the required spending is depressing. But if you insist, go to <a href=””></a>, and click on  “Interim Assessment of Achieving Improved Trip Times on the Northeast Corridor.”
So rather than focus on what seems unobtainable at the moment, I’m going to fold my laptop, stare out the deep and wide Acela windows, and enjoy the here and now. See you in a few days. — Fred W. Frailey

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