This Amtrak doesn't chug -- it flies Swedish X2000 makes run to N.Y.

February 02, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Before U.S. passenger rail service entered a new and faster era yesterday, Ray Delacruz posed for a picture of himself holding his 9-month-old daughter in front of the fancy train.

It's not the kind of image one associates with Amtrak, with its perennial financial struggles. But Mr. Delacruz, a management trainee from Queens, N.Y., has never seen anything like the X2000 before.

"When I heard that I could be on the X2000 on its first trip, I had to book it," said Mr. Delacruz, 30, who had visited relatives in Virginia and was returning home with his daughter, Meryl Lisbeth. "Someday I can show her the picture and she'll know she was there."

Shortly after noon, the blue and gray X2000, a sleek-looking six-car electric train imported from Sweden, pulled away from Union Station in Washington with its first paying customers. Two hours and 42 minutes later, Train 112 arrived at Pennsylvania Station in New York, nearly 15 minutes ahead of the regularly scheduled Metroliner service it had replaced.

There were lines of curious spectators armed with cameras outside both train stations and plenty of "oohs" and "aahs" on board.

"It feels like Europe," said Lou Arnell, an attorney from San Diego, Calif. "I feel like I'm making history in my own insignificant way."

His wife, Almiede, added: "It would be great if something like this was available for business travel. This is really different, a lot nicer than we're used to."

Amtrak officials pronounced the run a success but hope to do even better in two weeks when the Federal Railroad Administration grants permission for the train to go 10 mph faster than the posted 125 mph speed limit on tracks between Washington and New York.

The goal is to get the time down to 2 hours and 20 minutes, at least 20 minutes faster than the express Metroliner service.

That timing is of paramount importance to Amtrak officials who believe every minute below three hours will be critical to luring business travelers away from the airlines. The X2000 is part of an $800 million program to bring high-speed rail travel to Baltimore and other cities in the Northeast corridor by 1997.

The X2000's inaugural run represents the latest phase of a testing program that began in November. So far the train has demonstrated that it is capable of speeds in excess of 150 mph, 25 mph faster than a Metroliner. Its ability to literally tilt around curves, compensating for the centrifugal force, allows the train to comfortably take turns 40 percent faster than a normal train.

French and Japanese ultra-high-speed trains can travel even faster but require dedicated, straighter track than the X2000 does. Because it would be able to run on existing tracks, the train could be put into permanent service in the United States at a savings of $1 billion or more in infrastructure improvements.

For the next three months, Amtrak will incorporate the X2000 in its Metroliner service at no extra charge to passengers. Its goal is to gauge customer reaction before deciding what features to call for in the design of the high-speed trains that Amtrak will eventually purchase.

Yesterday's first 190 customers had mostly good things to say about the X2000.

Rick Meyer, a rail buff from suburban Philadelphia, took the day off from work and spent $231 on tickets so he could get to and from Washington and take the train round-trip. He found the train "extraordinary," well worth the $4 million it cost Amtrak to bring it over from Sweden on loan.

"I think the government needs to put more emphasis on public transportation like this," Mr. Meyer said. "I think we're really failing in that regard."

Some of the passengers said they booked the X2000 deliberately to coincide with travel plans, but others wound up on the train by accident.

"I was amazed I could just walk on," said Helene Tartakowski of Rosslyn, Va., a translator who travels to New York once a week. "It's extremely nice. I'm very impressed."

Amtrak and the train's manufacturer, Asea Brown Boveri Inc., were prepared for the historic nature of the occasion. They sold T-shirts, mugs and sweat shirts with the X2000 logo and even raffled some of the items as door prizes.

"This is like being at the birth of high-speed rail in this country," said Gareth Rosenau, an attorney with the Federal Railroad Administration. "Admittedly, we're not going much faster than a regular Metroliner, but it feels like a special day."

The biggest attraction was simply the clean, comfortable luxury of it all.

Unlike the sometimes rather dingy coaches that veteran Amtrak riders are accustomed to, the X2000 looks a bit like it was designed by IKEA with wood tables and a generally brighter, more contemporary-looking interior.

But the passengers were not without some criticism.

The food service, which featured waiters bringing around more upscale items than the usual snack food, was painfully slow. The entree offered was a $9 chicken roulade served on china.

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