Respond to this Article October 2001

Slower Than A Speeding Bullet

Why Amtrak's new Acela looks fast but is not.

By David Carr

Two-year-old Ryan Kinney looks up as a steely apparition pulls silently into Boston's South Station. A smile fights its way in between cheeks engorged with half-chewed McNuggets.

"Acela," he says happily.

That's epic branding, a Pavlovian depth of consumer affiliation that makes marketing executives hug each other. And it's brought to you by Amtrak, the rail transportation apparatus of the U.S. government, an agency not historically celebrated for its warm relationship with the general public.

"It was one of his first words," says Ryan's grandmother, Barbara Hurley.

Every Tuesday afternoon, Hurley picks up Ryan and his four-year-old brother, Patrick, and heads for the Route 128 station outside Boston. They're all train freaks, the kind of civilians who live to be kissed by the wind of a passing behemoth. The three watch several trains go by before grabbing a local to the station for lunch, but nothing rivets Ryan like the Acela.

There's a reason for that. If a small child could conjure a grownup train, he might make something that looked like the Acela Express. (The nomenclature is a conflation of "acceleration" and "excellence.") Christened last November, Acela is a land jet with the nose of a 747 fronting a vast expanse of windowless grillwork that conceals tons of mechanical fury just waiting for a spark from the overhead wire. Back where the passengers sit, there's enough tricked-up gadgetry to put an arch in James Bond's eyebrow. On a northbound Boston trip recently, a guy in a suit stepped up to the whooshing electronic door at the end of car and said, "Open the pod door, Hal."

An American version of the bullet train, Acela is capable of speeds in excess of 150 miles an hour and tilts niftily up on its side to take the steepest bends, the better to keep those nasty G-forces at bay. As a matter of design, Amtrak's high-speed entrant is bolted together to avoid the pushes and pulls of common rail conveyances, and is powered by electric motors less noisy than a lot of room air conditioners. Double-size windows suffuse the church-quiet transportation pod with light. The chairs---designed after careful market research on 25,000 riders in the Northeast corridor---make the middle seats on a DC-9 seem medieval.

Such town-car amenities and aerodynamics didn't come cheap. The government-owned rail agency has sunk an unprecedented $1.7 billion into Acela, hoping to make the leap into the 21st century after largely bypassing the 20th. To hedge its bets with the traveling public, Amtrak spent millions just on marketing its land yacht---a full year before there was ever a train to ride on. The promise of a bona fide American bullet train has certainly caught the attention---and the imagination---of the American public, but thanks to a combination of politics and performance, Acela hasn't quite lived up to the hype.

When it pulled into the Boston station at 9:30 one night last summer, dozens of people surged out to meet it. But they were there to get a look at the equipment, not the people it brought. Acela is that rare piece of hardware, like the re-designed VW bug, that makes people smile involuntarily when they see it. Hurley says Acela has riveted her grandson from the moment he saw it: "It's so sleek and beautiful. But our understanding is that as pretty and modern as it is, it doesn't really save you much of any time."

Grandma Hurley may have a soft spot for trains, but she's no sucker. The quickest Acela can go between New York and Boston is three-and-a-half hours. Fifty years ago, the New Haven Railroad's Merchants Limited made the trip in four. Three-quarters of the way into its maiden season, the best the bullet can do is save you the same 30 minutes over the Acela Regional, as the Northeast Direct is now called. (Between Washington and New York, people on the "high-speed" train can expect to pull in a whopping 15 minutes ahead of those traveling on legacy technology.)

The meager minutes saved hardly match the mystique, nor do they derive from Acela's bulleting along at 150 miles an hour. The train hits top speed once, for a couple of minutes, on the flats on the Boston-New York leg; the rest of the time it floats along relatively prosaically under 100 miles an hour, something steam trains accomplished a century ago. The Acela Express only beats the old trains to New York because it makes fewer stops and doesn't have to switch to diesel now that the line has been electrified all the way to Boston.

In the end, Acela is functionally the same old Amtrak with a bullet-train bonnet, running on track that includes tunnels dating back to the Civil War and switching equipment not much younger. And it must share those tracks with freight rail companies. High-speed trains in Europe and Japan run on mostly straight, dedicated tracks between major metropolitan areas, and they are very fast. Those countries don't even consider a train high-speed unless it travels at least 125 miles an hour. Such technology typically blossoms in smaller countries that have the will to invest in infrastructure that make trains truly competitive with airlines and make cars seem silly. But in America, the term "bullet train" is more marketing rubric than paradigm-shifter.

When pressed about the slowness of its high-speed train, Karen Dunn, an Amtrak spokeswoman blames the media for hyping expectations, saying that Amtrak never claimed that Acela was a bullet train (an assertion somewhat hard to square with Amtrak's Web site which promises that Acela "zips along at 150 miles an hour.") Dunn insists that the trains are meeting the agency's expectations and brags that they have shaved almost one-and-a-half hours off the trip between New York and Boston. (Schedules show a difference of barely an hour, which stems from non-stop service, not the new technology.) While Amtrak expects to knock 20 more minutes off the New York-Boston leg, Dunn concedes that the United States will probably never have a true bullet train.

"We have a problem Europeans and Japanese don't: we are dedicated to our cars," she explains. "There's not enough room in this country to build tracks to accommodate high-speed rails."

There's something incredibly American about this particular failure. No other developed nation on earth would fall for a train that looked fast but wasn't. In Japan, the responsible executives would prostrate themselves and hint at suicide. European parliaments would convene, names would be taken and blame assigned. But here, performance is a vestigial issue and Acela simply another form of expensive techie jewelry.

Building a real bullet train would have required some very un-American impulses. In the U.S., the good of the whole comes to a screeching halt just about the time Amtrak's congressional overseers interject pork-barrel politics and anti-government ideology that batters the "public" part of public transportation. And the idea of investing in infrastructure for a vehicle that can't be personally captained sounds almost silly. Trains? Who the hell rides the damn things apart from the rest of the known universe? In America, trains are for losers who have no place to go.

Bullet Train Bonnet

The promise of an American bullet train was born and almost immediately died in the months when Congress passed the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, which essentially laid the groundwork for dismantling the government's passenger-rail monopoly. While it allowed Amtrak, for the first time, to close money-losing routes and to add new ones, and infused $2.2 billion in capital funds, the law also required Amtrak to become self-sufficient within five years; if Amtrak didn't make the mark, a newly created Amtrak Reform Council could draft a plan to liquidate the entire system. (The council, which is supposed to guide Amtrak towards self-sufficiency, is co-chaired by rabid anti-government activist Paul Weyrich, and is stacked to the gills with conservatives appointed by Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott.)

Never mind that the national rail agency, christened in 1970, is no more likely to pull itself into the black than Congress is. After 26 years and $22 billion in federal operating subsidies, Amtrak has never made a profit, and it is so deep in debt that it could never survive without federal funds. But having been told to conduct itself like an American business, Amtrak has complied in full, blowing its wad on Acela, which is supposed to boost Amtrak's cash flow by 2002.

So far, the rail agency has spent $800 million on 20 new train sets, which are being produced by a consortium of Canada's Bombardier Transportation and France's Alston Ltd. (makers of the eye-popping TGV). Twelve have been delivered and another eight are due by the end of the year, despite the fact that there is not a single track in the country outside the Northeast corridor on which those new trains can run. And there won't be for many years, a problem Amtrak is well aware of. The new trains will simply replace the old Metroliners on the Northeast corridor.

In bringing Acela to America, the agency ignored time-tested extant bullet-train technology and insisted on developing its own. It scrimped on the R & D, delivered the product late to market with unreliable technologies, initiated an ad campaign before the train existed, and have since used the conventions of marketing to obscure the product's failure to do what it was designed to do. You generally expect an entity with that kind of m.o. to be listed on the NASDAQ.

To build a real bullet train in the Northeast, an undeniable civic and national good, would have taken substantial money---at least $12 billion just to upgrade the Washington to New York leg---a lot of which would have gone to the kind of infrastructure improvements politicians can't cut ribbons on. (For the same reason, Amtrak spent millions renovating New York's Penn Station, even though the tunnels leading to it are decrepit and offer no realistic escape route if anything goes wrong. And now that Penn Station has been primped within an inch of its life, Amtrak has announced that it will use its portion of the station as collateral on a $300 million loan to meet operating expenses.)

Amtrak runs just like any other government program, which means that moneys have to be atomized across a broad constituency of politicians to cobble together a voting coalition.

The deals required to create that coalition explain a lot of Amtrak's current troubles. Already, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has successfully lobbied to get one of the 10 or so scheduled new high-speed rail lines to go through---you guessed it---Mississippi.

The Magnolia State isn't exactly on the top of transportation planners' priority lists, but no matter. Money that might otherwise go towards developing better tracks from Los Angeles to San Francisco or safer tunnels at Penn Station may very well end up electrifying rail lines along that highly traveled "southeast corridor" between Meridian, Mississippi, and Dallas, Texas.

As John Robert Smith, mayor of Meridian (and Amtrak board member), told the National Conference of Mayors this year, "Southern Mississippi can be on the leading edge of the development of high-speed cars."

Good Lookin' Hot Dogs

Because Amtrak can't offer customers speed, it has had to focus on selling the frisson of Acela. U.S. Airways shuttle flights run on the hour between New York and Boston and New York and Washington, taking just an hour. Even factoring in ever-increasing delays and the hellish cab rides to Logan and LaGuardia, Acela can't compete in terms of time.

"They promise you prime rib, but what you are getting is good-looking hot dogs," says Joseph Vranich, author of Derailed: What Went Wrong and What to Do About America's Passenger Trains. "We now have a train that is attractive, with a number of really nice amenities, but it is insufficient to drive air passengers from the busiest air traffic corridor in our country. Even if it's successful from a financial standpoint, it will not cause the removal of a single commercial flight."

When Acela was christened last November, the former chair of Amtrak's board of directors, Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, suggested: "Every generation is marked by breakthroughs that profoundly affect our society. The launch of the Acela is one of those defining moments."

As I write this, we are limping over degraded track outside Stamford, Connecticut. Acela's fancy undercarriage banishes the clak-clak that has been part of train travel ever since John Henry first drove a spike. But the eerie quiet means that I get to listen to the guy across the aisle bray into a cell phone about his recent negotiation with a car salesman, all the time gesturing with a giant can of Fosters I'm pretty sure he didn't buy in Acela's Jetson-like café car.

One of every four seats is occupied. In the cafe car---the only such car in America offering draft beer---the bartends explained that this train wasn't on the original schedule, and so people weren't showing up yet. I suggest that this might also be because it costs twice as much as a regular train and takes three times as long as flying. (A one-way Acela ticket between Washington and Boston costs $162, compared with $69 for the regular train, and $168 round-trip for a ticket on Southwest Air.) The bartender says that travelers are choosing Acela Express for other reasons.

Acela draws a different sort of trade, he said, gesturing around, implying that his train was expensive enough for the busy business traveler to escape crying kids, fat guys chomping on smelly sandwiches, or grandmas brandishing an endless ream of photos. Indeed, Acela just doesn't have room for those guys. It has only 304 seats, compared to 700 on the European TGV trains---another reason the tickets cost so much. By granulating its audience through fares that grow to nearly match the airlines,' Amtrak has made Acela a kind of rolling gated community, a clean, comfortable place where business can be conducted.

People also ride Acela for the same reason that they spend $200,000 on a powerboat that carries two people: because wasting money is fun and makes them feel alive. If only Amtrak could figure out a way to let passengers drive the train for the brief minutes it approaches top speed, they'd have a winner on their hands.

The inside of an Acela does have its merits. You could play racquetball inside the massive bathrooms and it's nice to do your business standing up without having to put yourself in sync with the sway of traditional trains. The interior features that same odd combination of faux luxury cheesiness sported by the current crop of new cars---there's lots of that pristine ubiquitous plastic and fabrics that haven't hosted thousands of other odor-emitting humans.

But even on the level of service and creature comforts, Amtrak has a way to go. The airline shuttles offer nice new equipment, too, with televisions in each seat, lots of music to choose from, and, let's not forget, stewardesses. On the Acela Express, I did have a Maine lobster roll, but it cost $8.50 and I had to stand in line 15 minutes to get it.

Amtrak didn't need lobster rolls to get in the game. If its high-speed trains had actually been able to get from New York to Washington, or Boston to New York, in less than two hours, they would have been swamped. Rail has a significant head start because its relatively smaller footprint than those of airports and because it can be tucked underground in major metropolitan areas. The fight to get to LaGuardia or Logan, plus a growing collapse in the nation's air traffic grid should have put Acela way out in the lead; instead, all the horsepower stays in the barn.

In order to convince people that Acela is the way to go, Amtrak has had to change the subject. The Acela Express is marketed the way airline travel used to be. Remember when traveling by airplanes was glamorous, the stewardesses offered leis to travelers in between serving up recognizable food on fine china? Then came deregulation, and it was goodbye filet de boeuf and hello four-peanut polybag. The airlines' fleets became buses with wings, accessible to all at a manageable price, as long as they didn't mind riding with their heads in the armpits of the guys next to them. Now Acela is re-introducing the traveling public to fine china, at least in first class, in an age when time is the most desperately sought luxury of all.

Trains have defined and enabled progress throughout American history, but now, so manifestly overtaken, they cling quaintly to a very minor role in American travel. According to Amtrak, the federal government spent $33 billion last year on highways and $12 billion on aviation, while Amtrak had to do with $500 million, less than one percent of all transportation spending. People generally chock up the lack of rail investment to Americans' dysfunctional relationship with the automobile, but it's really their submission to the clock that has sent trains running backward. Once airplanes went supersonic, trains became rolling anachronisms.

And that's where they sit. As it is, trains are lying in wait for a perfect storm, a time when the country's air traffic and highway grid irreparably melt down. Even now, Amtrak gets a fair amount of business off the airlines when there's mayhem in the skies as there was last month, but its hoping for more than referrals. Amtrak had hoped that Acela would inspire the kind of wonder that would renew the country's love affair with the train while filling its coffers (and saving it from congressional dismemberment), but there's little magic in a bullet that goes too slow to actually hit the target.

David Carr writes for the Atlantic Monthly and New York magazine.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here