Business travelers could benefit significantly over the next decade from two little-noticed appropriations Congress approved this fall.
One is designed to help speed rail service between New York and Boston. The other could spur development of ultra-high-speed, magnetic-levitation trains that would be faster than flying on certain routes.
For the New York-to-Boston rail line, Congress approved $125 million to begin an overhaul designed to get the 231-mile trip down to less than three hours. The trip now takes about 4 1/2 hours on most trains. The funding is about one-fourth of what will be needed over the next five years to achieve the three-hour trips.
With faster service, Amtrak hopes to duplicate on the Boston route its success on the New York-to-Washington route, which is used by droves of business travelers daily because the trip time is competitive with airline service.
The New York-Washington route is faster than the New York-to-Boston trip because it has more long, straight stretches, and because electric diesels can be used all the way. Numerous curves mark the route between New York and Boston, and slower diesel locomotives must be substituted for electric ones between New Haven, Conn., and Boston.
Amtrak began to make a greater effort to attract business travelers on the New York-Boston route this fall by taking the first, tentative steps toward higher-speed trains.
Starting Oct. 28, Amtrak began running all-reserved express trains, twice a day each direction, that make the trip in 3 hours 55 minutes. The time was shaved by cutting out several stops and by allowing trains to take curves at higher speeds, Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black said.
Demand for the new express service was good in the first two weeks, but Amtrak knows it must cut the trip to less than three hours to attract the time-sensitive business traveler, Mr. Black said.
Reliable service in under three hours would mean that traveling by rail from midtown Manhattan to downtown Boston would be quicker than making the trip by air, including getting to and from the airports at each end, he said.
On the New York-Washington route, all-reserved Metroliners take about 2 hours 55 minutes for the 226-mile downtown-to-downtown trip, compared with more than four hours a decade ago. That reduction has had a big impact on the travel market.
Congress' other initiative this fall was to set aside $12 million for
the Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers to research whether magnetic-levitation trains are feasible in the United States.
So-called mag-lev trains have powerful magnets that let them hover above a guideway, eliminating the normal friction of wheels on rails and allowing them literally to fly over the guideway at 300 mph.
American inventors pioneered the technology, but the U.S. government quit funding development in the 1970s, allowing German and Japanese researchers to get ahead. Among current U.S. mag-lev projects, a private group has applied to build a 14-mile line in Florida; a joint California-Nevada commission is studying whether to link Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif., and a Pittsburgh group wants to build a regional system.
At a conference sponsored last week in Princeton, N.J., by the High Speed Rail Association and the SuperMag Coalition, two groups that promote mag-lev, one of the pioneering American researchers said the Northeast's population density made it ideal for a super-speed train.
"New York to Washington makes a lot of sense for the first commercial mag-lev system," said James R. Powell of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. "And we should think of it not as just a passenger system, but as one that could carry freight as well."