Back to the Future Aboard Amtrak's Acela
By Bill Moore
Talk about night and day!
I just cleared the security check line at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Hundreds of people are shuffling slowly through a half dozen different security screening lines. When we finally reach the scanners, we have to take off coats, shoes and belts. Those of us with laptop computers have to unpack them and send them through the scanner in a separate plastic tub, followed by the tub with our coats and shoes. Behind them come any carry-on bags. I have to show photo ID three times, just to get to the boarding gate.
On the other side of the scanners, people are rethreading their belts, slipping back on their coats and sliding into their shoes, some kneeling to retie them. Computers are zipped back into their cases and everyone scurries on to their gates, probably relieved to have not been pulled aside for a humiliating wand search or to have their bags sniffed for explosives. Travel enough and sooner or later you will get nailed for more thorough scrutiny. I've had all of the above happen to me over the years since 2001.
But that's America – and the world – in the wake of 9/11...
That is unless you ride the Acela train as I just did for a quick, overnight trip to New York on business.
I am in Washington for the annual Electric Drive Transportation Association conference, held just blocks from the Capitol and Union Station. Because of a last minute schedule change, I needed to travel to New York City for a meeting with some officials from Iceland. The only way we could make the meeting work was for me to meet them early in New York on the last day of the conference.
I checked my options – Jetblue from IAD to JFK or Union Station to Penn Station. I was staying three blocks from Union Station in Washington and my meeting in New York was just two blocks from Penn Station. The train would take exactly 2 hours and 45 minutes station to station. The plane would be faster, of course, but the hassle of getting from downtown Washington to Dulles and then from JFK into Manhattan – and then repeating the process in reverse, just didn't seem worth the cheaper airfare of $55 one-way compared to $152 one-way on Acela. Besides, my friend Jigar Shah, the CEO of SunEdison was taking the same train home and he generously offered to let me crash on his futon again.
Was the extra $200 worth it?
Unquestionably and wading through the security gauntlet here at National Airport only reconfirmed that.
The Acela is the U.S effort to offer fast train service that people in Europe and Japan take for granted. Nowhere near as fast as the super-trains aboard – largely because of track limitations – the Acela was still an eye-opener for this Midwest boy. The experience starts when you enter the station. I found the ticket line short and the agent pleasant and helpful. The entire atmosphere of the terminal seems much more relaxed. There is no security gauntlet to run. You show your ticket and a photo ID once to enter the gate area where the long, sleek, silver and blue Acela sits quietly. Since its electric there are no noxious diesel fumes to endure from idling engines.
And then there are the cars – six of them. They are spacious and uncrowded, and the seats incredibly comfortable. Some face each other with tables between them so people can play cards, share a meal or hold an impromptu conference. One car is dedicated as the “Quiet Car” where people can retreat to from the chatter of cellphones and banter of business talk.
In a stroke of sheer brillance in this age where every business traveler packs a laptop computer and cellphone, each seat has access to a 110 volt power outlet. You can recharge your cellphone – assuming you brought along the charger – or run your computer or DVD player.
The seats not only recline but also have lumbar support and foot rests and there is limousine-like leg room. Each seat is also equipped with a huge pull out table. All around us are scores of open laptop computer with people editing spreadsheets, reading documents or watching movies. The whole atmosphere just seems much more conducive to conversation and even work than any commercial airliner. Maybe an expensive corporate jet would come close, but I doubt it.
Each of the twenty trains in the Acela system are composed of six cars carrying a total of 304 passengers, close to the maximum seating capacity of a Boeing 767. According to Amtrak, quoting the U.S. Energy Department's Data Book, Amtrak's BTU's per passenger miles was 2,751 for the diesel segment of their fleet, while commercial jetliners 3,587. Even more intriguing, jet fuel represents twenty-five percent of the operating costs of an airline. The electricity and diesel fuel Amtrak uses for its northeast corridor and nationwide is only six percent of its operating costs.
According to the Friends of the Earth, the average Amtrak train, most of which are diesel, put out two-thirds less greenhouse gases than cars and trucks and one-half that of commercial aircraft. The all-electric Acela would emit no greenhouse gases, though the power plants generating the electricity for the trains would.
While Amtrak reduced the amount of diesel fuel it used in 2005 over 2004 by 10 percent, it increased its ridership for the third start year. Along the Acela/Metroliner corridor, ridership was up 8.8%. Having experienced the Acela between Washington and New York I can understand why.
In so many ways, it's like stepping back in time half a century before Homeland Security, discount airlines, and the national Interstate system. From my experience the last couple days, this is definitely how to travel on trips under 500 miles, especially when and if America upgrades its track system, most of which is a century or more old. Some of the tunnels leading into Baltimore, for example, were dug by hand in 1877, limiting the speed of the 150mph (250kph) Acela. [Read Putting Rail Back on Track by Paul Weinstein.] Letting the Acela have its head could mean a rebirth of civilized travel again, and help reduce America's dependence on imported petroleum, while also helping reduce global warming.
If you've not ridden the Acela, it's an experience I now can highly recommend. And when was the last time you could get off a 300 seat airplane in less time than it took to read this article?
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