This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: What's Wrong—What's Next: 2003 Technology Forecast & Review.
North America is facing a transportation crisis. Highways in urban areas are becoming more congested every year. Airlines are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, clinging to bewildering fare structures and otherwise alienating customers. Fuels still come from oil imported from regions of the world that are potentially unstable. It's time for North Americans to get serious about high-speed rail.
Europe and Japan lead in making high-speed rail the centerpiece of their transportation infrastructures. Over a million people shuttle daily in sleek Shinkansens, gleaming TGVs (Trains à Grand Vitesse), and swift InterCity Express (ICE) trains. Impressed by these trains' record speeds, dependability, and comfort, South Korea and Taiwan are now building high-speed lines, and China is planning major new lines of its own. In the densely populated, heavily trafficked Northeastern corridor of the United States, however, the very place that could and should be one of its greatest success stories of all, high-speed rail remains a disappointment.
Slow and faulty, but well-received
The inadequacy of U.S. interurban rail was thrown into sharp relief last August when structural and mechanical problems forced a temporary suspension of its premier service—Amtrak's Acela Express trains. They had only been in operation for 20 months and had sustained, on average, speeds less than half of their European and Japanese counterparts.
Even so, Acela is well-received, suggesting that popular acceptance is not the bar to high-speed rail. Acela attracted more passengers than the two competing air shuttles, which link New York City with Washington, D.C., and Boston (56 percent of all travelers versus 44 percent for the Delta and US Airways shuttles, combined). Although the picture may be somewhat skewed by the lingering nervousness over the possibility of more terrorist attacks, they indicate strong support for a railway option in the Northeast.
The scheduled Acela Express trip time from New York City to Boston is three hours and 20 minutes. The air shuttle schedule for the same trip is one hour and 15 minutes. Even adding 45 minutes of airport waiting time, typical for passengers on shuttle flights, doesn't make rail a significantly better option. But add the comfort of train travel coupled with a 2.5-hour trip—Acela's original objective—and rail becomes very competitive with air shuttles.
The technical side of Acela has been troubled from the start. Delivery of the first of 18 Acela Express trainsets from Bombardier Inc. (Montreal) to Amtrak was delayed over a year amid accusations from the manufacturer that Amtrak had made costly, late changes to the design details and specifications. One result is that the train ended up being 10 cm too wide. This restricts the tilt capability in the Northeast corridor, imposing speed constraints on curved track, and longer running times. The hoped-for 2.5-hour trip from Boston to New York remains an elusive goal.
While there were some unresolved equipment shortcomings that did not jeopardize safety, Amtrak accelerated delivery. A major fault was revealed during a routine maintenance check on 12 August 2002. A bracket holding a yaw damper on an Acela locomotive had fractured. Each locomotive has eight such brackets, two at each corner, to reduce the oscillatory motion of the locomotive body around a vertical axis through its center of gravity. Checks on other trainsets revealed similar (although not as severe) cracking—clearly this component was fatigue stressed beyond its design limit.