Local train buff ready to plan the 21st Century Limited to Boston


December 07, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Edward J. Lombardi has the dream job of any kid who ever tinkered with toy trains.

As manager of performance and tests for Amtrak, he is responsible for checking out the quality and engineering of the Amtrak fleet from the sound levels inside the cars to the stopping distances of big diesel engines.

Most recently, the 47-year-old graduate of Parkville High School and Towson State University -- who lives now in Newark, Del. -- has been coordinating the evaluations for two high-speed trains from Europe.

His findings will greatly influence Amtrak's next generation of Metroliners. By 1997, Mr. Lombardi expects a Baltimore-to-Boston train ride to be reduced from seven hours to hours. Passengers will ride on 150-mph trains with such comforts as televisions, fax machines, and dining-car table settings that feature china, crystal and linen tablecloths.

QUESTION: Amtrak has tested two high-speed European trains recently. What was the result?

ANSWER: The Swedish X2000 and the German ICE -- thInterCityExpress -- were both here as short-term demonstrations.

Amtrak is not looking to buy either of them. We're looking at how these different features and amenities of those two trains fit into our culture. Almost on every trip, we have surveyed the traveling public to find out what they like and what they don't like.

Q. You've said positive things about both.

A. Yes, but they were built for different purposes. The X2000 is a tilting train that was built for curves.

On a curve that other trains have to slow down to 100 mph, the X2000 may not have to slow at all.

The ICE didn't tilt, but used the brute force approach: high horsepower and high acceleration. The ICE was much more elegant on the inside. You had televisions on many of the seat backs. You had Italian marble tables.

Q. Any significant problems?

A. No, we weren't dealing with trains that just came out of the box. They had been running in Europe for at least two years and had been developed 10 years earlier. These things had been debugged.

Q. You're about to write specifications for the Amtrak high-speed train. What will it look like?

A: That hasn't been resolved. Amtrak is going to say what the train has to do and let the builder find the most economic way of getting there. It must hold so many seats and make it between New York and Washington in so many hours.

Q. Most of the groups that are going to bid on the project are based overseas. Why aren't U.S. companies more competitive?

A. They don't have the capability, and it's not because they're dumb or inadequate. There was just no economic reason to build.

General Electric could have said 15 years ago, 'Let's build a high-technology, high-speed 150-mph train,' but who would buy it? Amtrak was the only possible candidate, and we didn't have the money. In Europe, trains are part of the culture, as is $4-a-gallon gasoline. Their railroads are heavily taxpayer-supported.

Q: The differences between the current 125-mph Metroliner and a 150-mph high-speed train seem somewhat negligible on a trip from Baltimore to Washington or Philadelphia.

A: That's true. But the high-speed trains were not really developed to reduce the Baltimore-Washington trip time.

The real impetus was New York to Boston. We have a four-hour trip time now on our best trains.

Amtrak is looking to compete with the airlines. Studies have shown that three hours is somehow a magic number.

Q: But even in the New York to Boston route, aren't the track improvements, including electrifying the line north of New Haven, saving much of that time?

A: If you made all the infrastructure improvements that Amtrak is anticipating, and didn't buy high-speed trains, you would save, maybe, a half-hour.

You have to consider the nature of the American business culture. We have to get New York to Boston under three hours.

Q: What's the possibility that high-speed trains will run beyond the Northeast?

A: The technology can be used everywhere. But you get into a practical problem.

Take for example, the Chicago to Los Angeles. Even if we brought it up from a 90-mph railroad to a 125-mph railroad, we'd only be reducing the travel time from 45 hours to 30 hours. That wouldn't do that much.

People just aren't on a trip like that to save time. They want to see the country. It's a different type of passenger.

Q: It sounds like high-speed rail will only happen around cities.

A: A number of high-speed rail corridors are suitable: Chicago-Detroit, Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Milwaukee, Los Angeles-San Diego, Oakland-Sacramento, Seattle-Portland. They would be perfect for 125-mph service.

Q: People seem to have a fascination with these trains.

A: We've had people who have flown from California and Canada to ride the X2000 or the ICE. I'm talking lawyers, banking executives, people in three-piece suits who have heard about these trains.

We've had telephones on the trains, and the first words out of people's mouths are: "I'm calling you from the X2000. . ." or "I'm calling from the ICE. . ." The on-board fax machines are the same way.

Q: There's been a lot of talk about 300-mph magnetic levitation trains running between Washington and Baltimore in the 21st century. What's your opinion about that technology?

A: If the public wants it, they'll have it.

But trains like the X2000 and the ICE have shown that trip times can be significantly reduced without building an all-new railroad.

You certainly could put a 300-mph "maglev" system between Washington and Baltimore, but I don't think it would be worth it.

The amount of money that would have to be spent to do that would be in the billions of taxpayer dollars. I don't see that in the near future as long as there are high-speed, 150-mph trains.

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