The Acela Express

The Acela Express trainsets are, to date, the fastest of their kind in the U.S., regularly topping speeds of 125 mph (with a few stretches reaching 150 mph) and the only ones to be officially listed as providing high speed rail service anywhere in the United States. The Acela (which derives its name from the word acceleration, Amtrak actually operates a series of services including Acela Express, Acela Regional, and Acela Commuter) had several foreign influences on its design and while its speeds are only a shadow of what other countries offer such as in France, Germany, and Japan it is certainly a step in the right direction to offering widespread high-speed rail travel across the United States. Also, while the Acela has had a number of mechanical troubles in its short career it still remains very popular and one of Amtrak’s top trains.

What resulted in the Acela Express began as early as the early 1990s when Amtrak went exploring for a high-speed train to serve its entire Northeast Corridor (NEC) operation. It tested several ultra-fast trains but what resulted in the Acela did not begin production until the mid/late 1990s with the help of government aide. It should also be noted that the Acela trains could have never happened themselves if upgrades to the NEC had not occurred, which replaced aging electric systems and updated others providing for alternating current as high as 25,000 volts along some segments.  The Acela was a joint venture between manufacturers Alstom and Bombardier.

After numerous delays and a year behind schedule, the first trainset finally operated between Washington, D.C. and Boston on December 11, 2000. The train’s ultra-fast speed and schedule finally made rail travel a comparable alternative to regional flights. While the entire train was initially meant to tilt what resulted was only the cars themselves actually built with such features (which is only meant to increase comfort while riding, particularly at very high speeds). Additionally, the tilting feature, unfortunately, is not of great use as Metro-North Railroad forbids its use along much of its line north of New York City and into Connecticut. Furthermore, some stretches of the Northeast Corridor cannot safely allow the use of tilting because the tracks are too close together (thus, if the cars tilted there is a real danger passing trains would strike one another entering curves).

Internally the Acela uses the latest in electric locomotive technology such as silicone oil-cooled transformers and the ability to operate under different voltages, such as is found on the NEC (anywhere between 11,000 to 25,000 volts). Other features of the Acela include a three-phase propulsion system that allows the train to accelerate incredibly quickly while requiring fewer motors than what has traditionally been used employing direct current (DC). Overall the Acela can provide over 12,000 horsepower with each power car at either end providing over 6,000 hp.  Part of the problem with the Acela's construction was the stringent guidelines the builders had to meet (set by the Federal Railroad Administration) in designing and ultimately building the train.

Because our country's railroad infrastructure is so outdated (at least for passenger service) the trainset had to be designed very carefully so as it could be safely operated while also providing speeds of over 100 mph. As such, the Acela was plagued by setbacks and increased construction costs that severely delayed its maiden launch.  While the Acela Express is designed to operate at or above 125 mph (which is the U.S. Department of Transportation's official rating for "high speed rail") it rarely achieves this status out along the Northeast Corridor.  Overall the train averages about 80 mph between Washington and New York and ironically, its top speed of 150 mph is achieved through the smallest states along the NEC, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

Even though the Acela offers the highest speeds in rail travel anywhere in the country given its limitations, flaws, setbacks, and over budget the train should probably never have been built. Simply put, the Northeast Corridor has too many stretches of sharp curves for the train to operate effectively at high speeds (and, no one wants to spend the money to alleviate these bottlenecks). Furthermore, the trainsets have been sidelined more than once for mechanical problems, the latest occurring in 2005 when cracks were found in the disc brakes.  Overall, the Acela service will probably be the best this country has too offer for some time to come as no one, in the past 40 years, has wanted to wanted to foot bill in developing true high speed rail service. 

Yes, it is expensive, but high speed corridors would be effective in reducing congestion and increasing our country's economic productivity.   A very good book that provides a background of Amtrak is Amtrak: An American Story written and put together by the railroad itself.   The book was released in 2011 through Kalmbach Publishing to coincide with the carrier's 40th anniversary.  With its pages filled with fascinating photos from its earliest years through the modern era the book has been given high marks by most readers.  If you're interested in perhaps purchasing the book please visit the link above which will take you to ordering information through

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