150 mph train sails into our future Demonstration project from Sweden tilts into curves, whooshes away the miles

October 21, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Like a European immigrant with big plans for the New World, a high technology train that could revolutionize the future of passenger railroads in this country arrived on a Baltimore pier yesterday. Shortly after 8 a.m., six gleaming, silver and blue cars with a distinctly sleek shape rolled from the hold of the M/V Faust, a container ship berthed at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

Collectively, they form the $13 million-plus X2000 High Speed Tilting Train.

Its Swiss-Swedish maker claims the train can do for the relatively slow-footed U.S. passenger service what the diesel locomotive once did -- make trains faster, a whole lot faster.

The X2000 demonstration project is part of a $1.3 billion federal program to upgrade passenger service between Washington, New York and Boston.

Amtrak has agreed to lease the train from the Swedish State Railways for testing and demonstration along the Northeast Corridor at a cost of $4 million.

Such high-speed trains are expected to be adapted for regular service by 1997.

Manufactured by Asea Brown Boveri, the same firm that designed and built Baltimore's light rail cars, the electric powered train can travel at up to 150 mph.

That is substantially swifter than Amtrak's maximum of 110 mph for conventional trains and 125 for Metroliners, but still considerably slower than France's ultra-fast Tres Grande Vitesse and Japan's bullet trains, which can travel as fast as 180 mph.

More importantly, however, ABB claims the X2000 can reach its top speed on Amtrak's existing rails. That is a distinct advantage over its European and Japanese competitors, which generally require straighter, dedicated rails to accommodate their speedy trains.

"It's major strength is its ability to work on existing infrastructure," said Lutz W. Elsner, president of ABB Traction, the company's U.S.-based manufacturing subsidiary.

"It's not the highest speed solution on the market today, but the others require dedicated infrastructure that isn't available on the Northeast Corridor."

Government officials estimate that upgrading the tracks to accommodate a bullet train could cost $1 billion or more.

The Amtrak-owned tracks have too many curves, and trains too often must share the rails to permit ultra-high speeds.

Amtrak customers will be able to ride the X2000 between Washington and New York on regular Metroliner schedules beginning next February.

But be warned: the times won't be any faster on the X2000 than on the Metroliner.

Except during test runs with no passengers aboard, the Federal Railroad Administration has not authorized the train to exceed the normal speed limits imposed on Northeast tracks.

The key to the X2000's speed is how it takes turns. Straightaways have never been the problem for fast trains: Even though Amtrak's Metroliner can travel at up to 125 mph, the cars but must slow to an average 80 mph because of turns and stops along the way.

Unlike conventional trains, each axle on the X2000 pivots independently and passengers don't feel the centrifugal force caused by turning because the train literally leans into curves.

A system of sensors and microprocessors anticipates curves and tilts each car hydraulically to compensate for them.

That means the Washington-New York run, which normally takes about 2 hours and 35 minutes on the fastest express Metroliner, which skips some stops, could be reduced to 2 hours and 15 minutes on a routine basis.

The train that arrived in Dundalk is composed of a locomotive, a "bistro" car, a cab car and three coaches that had been in service on a route between Stockholm and Gothenburg in Sweden and were modified for use here.

Amtrak's test of the X2000 represents the first time that a foreign-made, high technology train has been tested in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's busiest passenger route.

There are no domestic manufacturers of high-speed passenger trains.

Transit experts have long complained that the United States has been slow to embrace high-speed rail travel.

The TGV in France, for instance, has been in operation since 1981.

"There's no reason why fast trains can't be built in the United States, it's just that the market has never been here," said Louis T. Cerny, head of engineering for the Association of American Railroads.

"The denser populations of Europe and Japan and the relative congestion of their airports makes trains more competitive there."

The federal program authorizes the purchase of 26 high-speed trains and ABB is expected to be a leading contender.

Amtrak's goal is to find out what it likes, or doesn't like about the X2000 before it begins seeking bidders for its high-speed trains next year, said R. Clifford Black IV, an Amtrak spokesman.

"Part of the value of the demonstration is to gather reactions from our passengers as to the comfort level of the train," Mr. Black said. "It should be quite nice."

Indeed, compared to conventional trains, the X2000 will seem downright luxurious -- akin to Amtrak's Club Service trains.

The X2000 will offer only first-class service, with attendants in each car taking orders for food and beverage like on an airline.

Fares have yet to be determined.

The train is scheduled to be moved from Dundalk to Amtrak's rail yard near Union Station in Washington tomorrow.

When not undergoing tests, the train can be seen on Union Station's Track 16.

It has been approved for high-speed tests (without passengers on board) in Southern New Jersey beginning next month, Mr. Black said.

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