Amtrak's new tilt-train is a waste of time, money


February 08, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Thomas Edison could have built a better candle.

Genius that he was, he probably could have created a candle that burned for three weeks and hardly flickered at all.

But Edison wasn't interested in the mere improvement of the existing. He wanted to invent the new. And so he gave us the electric light.

You may have read recently about Amtrak's new "high-speed" X2000 tilt-train that is now operating between Washington and New York.

You may have read about how fast it goes, how nice it is and how it is going to transform your life.

Well, I went and took a close look at one last week and talked to Amtrak officials and came to my own conclusion:

It's a slightly better candle. If that.

There is one thing, however, that makes it appealing to bureaucrats everywhere: It is really expensive.

First, let's examine what the new train is not: It is not high speed transportation.

I had been reading headlines telling me how the X2000 zips and roars and whooshes along the rails.

So I asked Pat Kelly of Amtrak how much time the X2000 saves on the run from Washington to New York compared to Amtrak's regular Metroliner service.

"None," she said.


"No," she said. "The X2000 travels at 125 mph and the regular Metroliner travels at 125 mph."

So what's all the excitement about? I asked.

"Well," Kelly said, "when the X2000 is allowed to travel at its top speed of 150 mph, then we will see a real difference."

How much difference? I asked.

She turned to R. Clifford Black of Amtrak, who said: "Well, even when it travels at 150 mph it will not cruise at that speed all the way, of course. So, let's say, from Washington to New York, it will save, oh, I'd say about 15 to 20 minutes."

Wow. Will we be able to stand the excitement?

Or, more importantly, will we be able to stand the cost of this

very uncheap thrill?

Shipping one X2000 over here from Sweden cost $4 million. A single X2000 set -- one locomotive, four passenger cars and a cafe car -- costs from $15 to $20 million to buy. And Amtrak wants to put these trains on its Northeast Corridor by 1997 at a cost of about $800 million.

All so we can have an extra 20 minutes in New York. During which time we can:

* Wait in line for a Big Mac.

* Travel one block by cab.

* Get mugged twice.

"But the point is not really speed," Pat Kelly said. "It's the amenities. For instance, the inside of the new train is completely different."

Except that it completely isn't.

I took a walk through the X2000 and it looked like a nice, new train.

It had seats that look pretty much like Metroliner seats. It had an aisle, it had windows. It had those little paper doilies to keep you from greasing up the seat backs.

There was one big difference, however: Most of the seats are configured to face each other in pairs.

That's because the X2000 comes from Sweden and Swedes are comfortable with staring at strangers. They share tables with strangers in restaurants, get beaten with birch branches by strangers in saunas, etc.

But Americans are not fond of staring at strangers. In fact, we are taught that staring at a stranger could cost you your life ("You lookin' at me? Hey, you lookin' at me?").

So unless you are a traveling bridge club, I cannot see why you would like the seats on this new train.

But I have ignored the most important point: The new train tilts!

And what does a tilt train feel like? I asked Kelly.

"Boring," she said. "You don't notice the curves at all."

Swell. These trains are not only going to cost us $800 million, they aren't even going to be any fun.

In the interest of fairness and because I can put it on my expense account, I will take the X2000 to New York in the next week or so and provide you with a report.

But for now I wonder why we are wasting our time and money on a better candle.

Why not explore monorails that operate by superconductivity or high speed tubes that blast us to New York with compressed air?

With a true invention rather than a mere improvement, we might be able to get to New York 60 minutes faster.

And could get mugged six times.

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