On the brink of launching Acela Express - North America's first high-speed rail service - Amtrak packed its new train with dignitaries yesterday and took them for a one-stop demonstration spin from Washington to Boston that hit an Amtrak-record 150 mph.
Regular ticket service is still a month off. But the guests on board the silver-and-blue bullet train yesterday relished the ceremonial journey and heralded it as a significant first step away from highway gridlock and airport frustration.
Amtrak President George Warrington likened the moment to the introduction of the jet engine or the construction of the interstate highways.
"This is about building a system all across the country that we can be proud of," he said.
But Acela's future will depend on a commitment of more money from Congress, Warrington said. Amtrak is investing $2.8 billion in Acela and hopes for $10 billion from Congress to develop 11 other high-speed corridors.
"You get what you pay for," he said. "We're tired of having Americans come back from Europe and ask why can't we do it here."
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat and longtime supporter of the project, predicted that the train will find a loyal following, particularly among air shuttle customers. "People are sick and tired of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic and waiting on airport runways," he said.
Acela begins daily service Dec. 11. Meanwhile, Amtrak plans unannounced Acela substitutions for some Metroliners during the Thanksgiving holidays so customers can become acquainted with it.
South of New York, rails and wires will limit Acela's speed to just 10 miles per hour faster than Metroliner service, shaving only 11 minutes off the two hour, 25-minute Metroliner trip from Baltimore to New York. The cost is $136, up from $114.
Passengers traveling north of New York will benefit most. Amtrak has invested heavily in track improvements there, enabling the train to reach speeds of 150 miles per hour and reducing the ride between New York and Boston by 45 minutes. The current $57 fare for that stretch will be $120 on Acela.
In Washington yesterday, a champagne christening launched the trip. As Acela headed north, the slight increase in speed was imperceptible. Nor did the ride seem smoother. Riders between Washington and New York may instead be drawn by the atmosphere.
Bigger windows create light-filled cars. There are larger tray tables and more electrical outlets for computer users, airline-style overhead bins, adjustable headrests, and a five-channel audio system that offers music and a feed from Cable News Network at every seat.
Improved acoustics mean you won't necessarily hear the guy on the cell phone three rows back, and you'll hear the person next to you better. The blue cloth seats are better-upholstered. And every double seat swivels to face the two behind it for groupings that can make business discussions or family travel easier. Instead of trying to grab a table in a Metroliner food car to do work, travelers are likely to appreciate the 32 conference tables installed throughout each six-car Acela train.
Acela's lavatories are spacious and equipped with vanities and diaper-changing tables.
"The bathrooms are designed with the user in mind, which is not something you can say about the old trains," said Ross B. Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
Any tarnish left from the year of delays that has dogged the Acela project was glossed over yesterday as legislators, business leaders and others savored the amenities of the sleek train and heaped praise on it.
"It's a calmer ride, and it will make it easier for me and my staff to do work when we travel," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, taking her first ride on Acela. After spending an hour in the first-class car, where the crew served cold salmon and "Asian salad," Mikulski tested a seat in business class. All in all, she said, a very comfortable train.
Acela's "bistro" car is a marked change from the Metroliner. More cocktail lounge than restaurant, it offers three kinds of beer on tap. Bars with stools mean no space to lounge for long. This concept works to avert the practice of Metroliner passengers, who rush to grab one of the cafe car's few tables, then spread out and settle in.
Instead of $5 tortilla wraps and cold-cut sandwiches, business-class customers can order $8 lobster or grilled-chicken sandwiches. Meals are complimentary in first class, where dinner might be steak grilled with herbs or rotisserie chicken with corncakes served on china at linen-covered tables.
Acela pulled into Penn Station in New York 2 1/2 minutes early, and waiters in black-tie promptly poured champagne and passed silver platters of filet mignon and figs with prosciutto. Acela's one stop of the day, it drew the likes of baseball star Keith Hernandez and actor Henry Winkler.