ABOARD THE ACELA - With the 5 a.m. departure of its new Acela Express from Washington yesterday, Amtrak launched North America's first high-speed rail service on a journey that many hope will begin a U.S. rail revolution.
The round-trip train to Boston, which reaches speeds of 150 miles per hour, marks an intensive and costly new commitment by Amtrak to lure commuters out of cars and planes and give the company a larger share of the travel market in the Northeast corridor.
First-class tickets for yesterday's train sold out early, and sales for business-class seats were brisk. Amtrak sold 177 seats on the evening run out of Boston, compared with 74 on a comparable Metroliner the week before, although officials said it was premature to predict any patterns in ticket sales.
At most of its 14 stops, the sleek, blue and silver train arrived and departed on time, give or take a few minutes. Rail fans staked out overpasses and lined the tracks at some spots to gawk, take pictures and chart its progress. The train of tomorrow arrived in Boston 13 minutes late yesterday, six hours, 47 minutes after leaving Washington. That included a 16-minute layover in New York City.
But the late arrival - still more than an hour faster than previously possible - didn't detract from the excitement of the trip, which drew an eclectic mix of riders.
A trio of young men outfitted in orange jump suits and calling themselves "transportation pioneers" used the opportunity to poke fun at the hype surrounding the train. As the Acela pulled away from Wilmington, Del., each donned a crash helmet and prepared to "push the outer edge of the envelope."
Three cars back, Chris Blaise, a 31-year-old New Jersey warehouseman and rail fan who boarded in Washington, sat at a table covered in track diagrams, city street maps and an expansive chart listing all towers, switch points and stations along the route. He diligently noted the time Acela passed each.
"I get a kick out of recording train movements," he said.
Many passengers were unaware that they had booked a ride on the new train and were pleasantly surprised. William Harral, dean of the business school at Drexel University in Philadelphia, got one glimpse of the brightly lit cars and overhead bins and said, "I thought I was getting on an airplane."
Passengers reveled in the newness of the six-car train: one first-class car with 44 seats, four business-class cars with 65 seats each, a "cafe" car, and a locomotive at each end. Riders settled into the comfortable blue seats and roomier cars, sprawled out to work at the conference tables, sampled the Mediterranean salad from the food car and dined on pasta with shrimp in first class.
Gloria Kruba of White Marsh boarded at Penn Station yesterday morning for a business meeting in New York.
"I used to have to race to the Metroliner cafe car to get a spot to plug in my computer," she said. But every seat on Acela has outlets, so there was no need to scramble yesterday. Many bought tickets so they could be part of the historic first trip. People roamed the cars taking snapshots and videos, 9-year-old train buff Saul Wilson among them.
Saul, who has his own train Web site, caught the first Acela out of Baltimore with his father, W. Stephen Wilson, a mathematics professor at the Johns Hopkins University. Juggling two cameras, the third-grader busily documented his journey to Wilmington.
"It was smooth at first, then I started bumping into the sides of the car," Saul said. "I guess it will keep people from walking around."
The two disembarked in Delaware and headed straight back for Baltimore in time for Saul's 8 a.m. class at Friends School.
Everyone seemed glad to get where they were going faster - even if, for some, it was only marginally faster. Between New York and Boston, where track improvements allow the train to reach its maximum speed, Acela is 45 minutes faster than Amtrak's Metroliner. But south of New York, the condition of rails and wires limits Acela's top speed to 135 mph. The New York-to-Baltimore run is just 11 minutes faster than the Metroliner.
After years of lackluster performance and financial dependence on taxpayers, Amtrak is capping off a year of successes with its launch of Acela. The company's revenue has grown 10 percent in the past year, to $1.1 billion. Ridership increased by 1 million, a 4 percent rise. In the Northeast corridor, Amtrak's faster "Acela Regional" trains, which were introduced last spring, produced a 77 percent jump in ridership and a 45 percent boost in revenue.
But it is on the Acela Express that Amtrak is pinning its future, and spending $2.8 billion. The company must become self-sufficient by 2003, according to a congressional mandate. Yesterday's train is the first of 20 that Amtrak plans to put in service by next fall. When all are operating, Amtrak predicts, the service will net $180 million a year, compared with $20 million from the Metroliner service that Acela Express is replacing.