The recent (August 2002) news reports1 about the Acela's problems brought back memories of our experience aboard one last fall. You may recall that we took the Acela Express from Washington to Boston to meet the QE2 where it had been diverted from New York after 9/11. Although the New York-to-Boston leg was a last-minute decision, we had scheduled the Washington-to-New York part weeks before. One reason was that we wanted to compare it with the French TGV, which we had taken between Lyon and Paris in 1995, and the similar Spanish AVE,
which we had taken between Sevilla and Madrid in 2000. The rapidly changing scenery as it unrolls past your windows is quite soothing – until your train passes another just a few feet away traveling in the opposite direction at a combined speed of nearly 400 mph – when there's an abrupt rush of sound that ends as quickly as it began.
Of course, even the top speed of the Acela is less than the lower end of the operational speed range of the European trains (155 to 185 mph), which have new, dedicated roadbeds. However, publicity releases assured us that it was faster and more comfortable than the Metroliner that had been our previous choice.
On time, we slowly pulled out of Union Station – and continued slowly on our way. Perhaps the caution was because we hadn't yet cleared the switching yard. However, when it was left far behind and we were still proceeding at a snail's pace, it was obvious that there must be another reason. Soon we stopped – for 10 minutes – then we started again, but no faster. After the next stop, and pause, there was an announcement: "We have to restart the train." Restart the train – I thought it was electric!
Whatever cranks they had to turn, or perhaps circuit breakers to reset, we eventually got underway and up to the speed the tracks would allow before our first scheduled stop, at Baltimore. As we entered the tunnel into Baltimore, I suddenly had the thought of how unpleasant a breakdown here would be. Fortunately there was none, and after the next several scheduled stops, the worst seemed to be behind us. Then we stopped again, and after a long wait, the announcement "Will the Bombardier representative please come forward!" As this was long before the company that constructed the train was a household name, the pronunciation was not French (it was bombadeer) and it was only four days after 9/11, the announcement sparked alarmed reactions among many of the passengers. However, there was no further explanation, and again we eventually started up, arriving in New York an hour late.
In the New York area we were again underground; but as we surfaced on the far side, a pall of white smoke in the distance marred the sky, reminding us of the twin tragedies of a few days before.
The rest of the trip evidently held to the schedule, although now an hour late. That and the speed that the train was able to maintain over the existing roadbed made for a long and tiring journey, eventually 7-1/2 hours. However, we soon found that our trip would have been a dream for some others. At New Haven, passengers from a broken-down regular train that couldn't be resuscitated came aboard – so much for the advantages of our premium fare accommodations.
However, one couldn't begrudge them a ride; their disabled train was just the latest in a series of misfortunes for those who had been trying to reach Boston from Atlanta when their aircraft were grounded four days earlier. Since their luggage remained aboard the grounded planes, their garb wasn't suitable for the chill platform where they had been deposited. Fortunately, none of those unlucky passengers were seated near enough for our noses to detect other probable results of that situation.
However, there was an irony yet to come. Soon, over the loudspeaker came a voice, serious but with a touch of excitement, intoning: "130 … 135 … 140." We realized that the train had come to a section of track where it could reach its maximum speed and we were to be breathlessly informed of that momentous event: "144 … 146 … 148 … 150!" the voice ended on a triumphant note. After which the train noticeably slowed to "normal" speed. One might think that after all the embarrassments of the day, they would prefer not to so starkly bring to our attention the difference between the hype and the reality. (We later learned that there are two sections of track–a total of 18 miles, out of 456 total–where this breakneck speed can be attained!)
1 In August 2002, cracks were found to be developing in the brackets in the trains' suspension systems, causing them to be temporarily removed from service. Redesigned brackets have since replaced the older ones. Cracks in disc brakes later developed, and the trains were again removed from service from April to September 2005 while the brake discs were replaced. I guess it's a good thing we traveled early, before these defects materialized!