If Amtrak's efforts to select the right technology for a new fleet of high-speed passenger trains can be likened to the race between the tortoise and the hare, then it was the prototypical hare that arrived in Baltimore yesterday.
The German-made InterCityExpress (ICE), was unloaded from the Wallenius Lines' cargo ship, the Faust, at Dundalk Marine Terminal yesterday afternoon for a six-month technical trial and demonstration for Amtrak.
Timed at speeds of up to 250 mph on a European test track, the aerodynamic ICE looks like a space shuttle with its wings clipped: a sleek, white-with-a-red-racing-stripe guided missile of a train.
Last October, the same pier in Dundalk was the entry point for the X2000, the Swedish-made high-speed tilting train that wowed Metroliner customers during recent service trials and is currently touring the United States.
But where the X2000 won fans for its tortoise-like smarts (tilt technology allowed it to take turns fast; top speed on straightaways was a relatively tame 135 mph), the ICE is all muscle. No tilting, just higher speed through greater horsepower.
"It's a trade-off between gross speed and flexibility," said Edward J. Lombardi, Amtrak's manager of performance and tests. "We are going to look at a train with a much higher capability of speed."
At stake in the debate over railroad technology is a $450 million contract to build 26 sets of high-speed passenger trains for Amtrak to run along the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston. The new trains will operate at 150 mph compared with a top speed of 125 mph on current Metroliners.
Unlike more exotic technologies such as magnetic levitation, which allows trains to zip along at 300 mph on a cushion of air, the steel-wheeled, electric-powered trains like the ICE and X2000 can run on the corridor's existing track.
That's a distinct advantage for budget-conscious Amtrak. A prototype Maglev system that advocates want to build between Washington and Baltimore could wind up costing $1 billion.
The ICE train that rolled out of the Faust's hull yesterday was composed of two engines, a 50-seat dining car and five coaches -- one first-class, three second-class and a coach-class with a conference room. There are telephones, a fax/copier machine and headphone outlets with three audio channels. Some seat backs come with video screens.
The ICE is scheduled to undergo technical trials next month and begin a two-month national tour of public displays in August. The train will be placed in Amtrak's Washington-to-New York Metroliner service, which includes Baltimore, from October to December.
Previously in use in Germany, the train is being leased from GermanRail by Siemens Transportation Systems Inc. and AEG Westinghouse Transportation Systems Inc., both U.S. subsidiaries of German corporations.
Jimmy D. Morrison, Siemens' vice president, said that if the two companies were to win the contract, the trains would likely be assembled in this country and many of the components would be U.S.-made.
Siemens, which has manufactured light rail and subway cars for VTC use in the United States, has also produced tilt technology for use in a slower Italian-made train that is currently in use in Germany, Mr. Morrison said.
"We have the capability of doing whatever Amtrak wants," he said.
Train enthusiasts had hoped the ICE would challenge the U.S. passenger train speed record of 170 mph, but Amtrak officials have decided not to pursue it, Mr. Lombardi said. Instead, they are asking the Federal Railroad Administration to allow them to test the ICE at 160 mph with nobody aboard and demonstrate it to paying customers at up to 140 mph.
The X2000 sliced 20 minutes off the two-hour, 35-minute run from Washington to New York during its Metroliner runs and the faster-accelerating ICE could shave another five minutes. That may not seem like a lot, but high-speed rail proponents believe any minute saved below three hours can lure business travelers away from short-hop airline flights.
The European trains are also more accommodating to passengers than a typical Amtrak coach. If the X2000's interior resembled an IKEA showroom with light tones and bare wood, then ICE's luxurious marble and brass dining car suggests the Orient Express.
"The press cares about speed, but the most stunning thing about the X2000 and the ICE is that they have the feel of a next generation of trains," said Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. "They don't rattle; they're tight. They have qualities we associate with a modern airliner, not Amtrak."