SOMEWHERE NORTH OF TRENTON, N.J., AS THE TRACT housing, industrial parks and forested hillsides fly by at 125 miles an hour, the sensation begins to crystallize--a passenger railroad car has been transformed into a first-class airliner.
This is no clunky diesel with its clickety-clackety roadbed noises, shuddering stops and starts, overbooked with passengers forced to sit in the aisles, heat that doesn't work, and a snack car that is always closed. This is a vision of an elegant railroading past, and a shimmering harbinger of a comfortable, high-tech future.
We are here, in a tunnel of speed, enjoying the X2000, a Swedish-built high-speed train that Amtrak is testing on the Washington-New York run. This sleek vehicle, capable of speeds up to 155 m.p.h., may mark the beginning of a new era of inter-city travel in the United States.
The X2000 runs on electrical power and can slow down or speed up with unerring smoothness. Car bodies have axles that move independently of each other, allowing the train to lean comfortably into curves and increasing average speed throughout the run. This improved design makes it possible to write a legible note as the train is moving and rest a cup of coffee on a table without spilling its contents.
Inside, the cars are quiet as a monastery. Seats are oversized and adjustable with fold-down pearwood tables. But the quiet is misleading--armrests feature jacks that plug into three stereo music channels. Wall outlets are available for cellular phones or laptop computers. Onboard phones and fax machines are kept busy, as are the small conference rooms in each car--glass-enclosed, four-seat compartments with desks, lamps and curtains for privacy. Other comforts include free soft drinks and juices available at the seats, and a complete meal of chicken roulade, salad and dessert for $9.
There is an elegant, almost pampered, feel to all this, a high-tech evocation of Pullman cars that once crisscrossed the land with their uniformed attendants, rich interior appointments and gourmet meals; of days when travel was an adventure and a pleasure, not a hateful and annoying necessity. You can see it on the faces of the passengers--the lack of tension, the look of awe. You can almost hear what they're thinking: This is the way it could be. All the time.
HIGH-SPEED RAIL: NO GRIDLOCKED HIGHWAYS, OVERSTUFFED AIRPORTS,baggage hassles and weather delays. The speedy X2000, which has been in commercial use in Sweden since early last year, has reduced travel time on the 275-mile trip between Sweden's two largest cities, Stockholm and Goteberg, from four hours to three.
In the United States, Amtrak already runs a hugely successful high-speed train. The New York-Washington Metroliner, with a top speed of 125 m.p.h., carries nearly half the air-rail traffic between the two cities. The agency is hoping the X2000, or a similar train, will do the same for service between Boston and New York, cutting the time between the two cities from more than four hours to three.
But the X2000 is not just a weapon in a war over passengers. Its appearance on American tracks is fraught with symbolism. Nearly 30 years after the Japanese \o7 Shinkansen, \f7 or bullet trains, made their first appearance, the United States is still well behind countries such as France, Germany, Sweden and Spain when it comes to factoring inter-city passenger trains into the transportation mix.
Spurred by environmental concerns, high gasoline prices and increasing airport traffic, these countries have decided that high-speed (150 m.p.h. and up) rail links between cities up to 500 miles apart are efficient, cost effective and environmentally benign. Their trains--the Japanese bullet, French TGV, German ICE, Spanish AVE and others--have proven to be exceedingly popular and safe. They have cut travel times by substantial margins, reduced energy consumption and helped take some of the burden off overcrowded highways and airline routes.
It all sounds like such an obvious way to move people around. But high-speed rail's detractors say Americans already have a fabulous interstate highway network and an airline system second to none. And it would take significant infrastructure costs--upgrading roadbeds and signal systems, eliminating grade crossings--to bring high-speed rail to America.
High-speed rail's proponents claim what's good for Lyon is good for Motown. They point to a number of inter-city routes--Los Angeles to San Francisco; Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Detroit-Cleveland; Dallas-Houston-San Antonio--where rail seems an obvious way to take the pressure off overtaxed highways and airports. Energy savings--the bullet trains use one-fifth the energy of a jet airliner--and safety factors accrue just by having less traffic on the ground and in the sky.