Monday, January 24, 2011

The Road To Acela

Amtrak Acela; Holmesburg Junction, Pennsylvania; November 29, 2009
Amtrak's Acela Express has certainly been a success. Since its inception a little more than a decade ago, Amtrak has made significant inroads into the market that has been dominated by the shuttle airlines between Boston, New York and Washington. The Northeast Corridor is the closest the United States has to true high-speed rail.

It was the Pennsylvania Railroad that brought electrification to the railroad between Washington and New York. The Pennsy was just about to merge into the Penn Central (with the New York Central) when it debuted its new high speed Metroliner trains. These self-propelled trainsets raised speeds on the Corridor, and operated through the Penn Central years and into Amtrak in 1971; they were the precursors to the Acela.
Amtrak Metroliner; Perryville, Maryland
The Metroliners were aging, and not gracefully. By the 1990s conventional locomotive-powered trains were holding down Metroliner schedules (and carrying the name as well), while the actual Metroliner cars were bumped to Keystone service between New York, Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Amtrak needed new high-speed trains. But first, in order to capture the Boston market successfully, it had to upgrade the Corridor east of New York, where electric locomotives powered trains to New Haven, Connecticut, and diesels continued east to Boston. Amtrak commenced to stringing wire in anticipation of its new trains.

First, Amtrak had to decide on what it wanted. To get a better idea, it borrowed two trainsets in regular service in Europe. First up was the X2000 from Sweden. Fast and lightweight, the X2000 featured tilt technology that allowed the passenger cars to tilt on curves, countering centrifugal force and allowing for higher speeds on curves (a necessity given the curve-laden nature of the railroad east of New Haven). The X2000 certainly impressed Amtrak as it worked in regular service for several months during 1993.
Amtrak X2000; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; April 28, 1993
The next train to test on Amtrak in regular service was the ICE (Inter City Express) from Germany. While the X2000 was light and nimble, the ICE was brute force with its rapid acceleration. With the two trainsets tested, Amtrak took the best of both worlds, combining the tilt technology of the X2000 with the strength of the ICE. Bombardier was hired to build the new trains, which were called American Flyers while under construction.
Amtrak ICE; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; October 6, 1993
Amtrak Acela; Old Greenwich, Conn.; August 2001
Acela finally made its debut on December 11, 2000. While there have been occasional problems (the entire 20-train Acela fleet was taken out of service briefly in 2002 and again in 2005 for maintenance issues) there is no question that it has been a success. I was fortunate enough to catch the Amtrak test trains (X2000 and ICE) and even rode the cab of the ICE between Trenton and New York and back (it was quite a ride!). When the Acelas entered service the upgrading of the New York-Boston segment hadn't been quite completed -- obviously the wire had been finished from New Haven to Boston, but the older infrastructure between New York and New Haven needed replacing. In August 2001 I was able to get a new Acela trainset passing under decades-old triangular wire on the former New Haven railroad (right).

Some say the Pennsylvania Railroad's classic GG1 locomotives were the best thing to ever run under wire on the Northeast Corridor. It would be foolish to argue otherwise, so I won't. But I will say the Acela trainsets are a worthy successor to the GG1s and make for quite a sight coming down the tracks. Power and speed -- all in a classy package. They have one decade under their belts now and should have another two or three to go.

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