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Real Railway: Amtrak Acela Express

The Acela Express is a high-speed rail service, operated by Amtrak, which runs along the North East Corridor (NEC) from Boston to Washington D.C. through places such as New York City and Philadelphia.

The Acela Express train is the only true high-speed train in the whole of America; it can reach speeds of up to 150mph (or 240km/h). They achieve this speed by the use of in-cab signalling and, most importantly, the tilting mechanism they have which means they can tilt around corners – meaning that they can go round corners much more quickly than conventional, non-tiling trains.

The Acela Express is somewhat unique as it shares its tracks with other, slower trains. It is not unheard of but it is certainly uncommon!

Acela trains have an average speed of 70 mph (110 km/h) between Boston and Washington. Trips between Boston and Washington are currently 7 hours, with Amtrak planning to reduce the time to 1.5 hours by 2040, primarily by acquiring more modern trains and reducing or eliminating congestion with other trains on the NEC, at speeds of up to 220 mph (350 km/h).

The Acela Express has been so successful and popular that it has caused a lot of passengers to switch from the relatively expensive air travel to rail travel on this route. This has caused so much of an effect that some airlines have had to scrap some Washington to New York flights as they were no longer economically viable.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

There are several full-route length departures each day, with even more departures from New York to Washington. However, the ‘normal’ (Northeast Regional) trains have much more departures each day, albeit to different destinations – but they still serve most stations, including those which the Acela Express doesn’t serve. The Northeast Regional trains – operated by Amtrak also – carried 8.01 million passengers in 2012; compared to Acela Express’ 3.4 million in the same year.

On March 9, 1999 Amtrak unveiled its plan for a high-speed train, the Acela Express. Twenty new trains were to run on the Northeast Corridor. Several changes were made to the corridor to make it suitable for the trains' operation. It was necessary to provide electrification from New Haven to Boston to complete the overhead power supply along the 454-mile route, and several grade crossings were upgraded or removed.

In October 1994, Amtrak invited bids for the manufacturer of new 150mph-capable train sets for this route. Bombardier and Alstom (originally GEC Alsthom) were both selected as joint manufacturers, with 25% of the manufacture to Alstom and the remaining 75% to Bombardier.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

There was a disagreement between Amtrak and the manufacturing consortium over costs and maintenance bills; this was not settled until March 2004. Development was not interrupted, and an inaugural VIP run of the Acela came on November 17, 2000 followed by the first revenue run on December 11, a few months past the intended date.

Amtrak's original contract with the Bombardier-Alstom consortium was for the delivery of 20 train sets (6 coaches each, with power cars at front and rear) for $800 million. By 2004, Amtrak had settled contract disputes with the consortium, paying a total of $1.2 billion for the 20 train sets plus 15 extra high-speed locomotives and the construction of maintenance facilities in Boston, New York, and Washington.