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Country is ready for more high-speed rail

After 10 years of service, Acela has made the case.

By Albrecht P. "Al" Engel

In December, Americans traditionally look back at where we've been, look ahead to where we're going, and take time to celebrate. 'Tis the season at Amtrak, too: We are marking the 10th anniversary of Acela Express, our 150 m.p.h. service, and thinking about how its success can inform the future of high-speed rail in America.

The next half-century will be defined by the emergence of "megaregions" - extended corridors of interconnected metropolitan areas, with shared economic sectors and linked infrastructure. High-speed rail can and should be among those links.

Over the course of its 10 years, Acela high-speed service has improved the connectivity and mobility of the Northeast Corridor megaregion, which stretches from Washington to Boston. It has reduced travel times and given millions of passengers a cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternative to congested highways and airports. It's hard to imagine the corridor without it.

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Transport of choice

In fiscal 2010, Acela trains carried more than 3.2 million passengers and earned $440 million in ticket revenue. On weekdays, an average of 80 percent of the seats are sold on the busiest segments, and trains regularly sell out during peak hours. In all, more than 25 million passengers have ridden on Acela since its first day of operation.

Combined with conventional rail service, Acela has helped Amtrak become the provider of choice for passengers choosing between rail and air travel on the key Washington-New York and New York-Boston routes.

It took a vision and more than 10 years of planning by Amtrak, Congress, and the Federal Railroad Administration before we could launch the first Acela train. Advance planning and sustained commitment over a number of years are required to build any major national transportation asset.

Now policymakers in Washington and state capitals must make a firm commitment to the future of high-speed rail.

In the near term, Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the state governments of the Northeast have a plan to improve and maximize use of existing Northeast Corridor infrastructure. Among other things, it will modestly increase Acela's top speed, to 160 m.p.h., and improve commuter-rail operations. Amtrak also is planning for the purchase of a new fleet of Acela trains that will have more seating capacity.

Even with these upgrades, however, the demand for service is expected to outstrip capacity by 2030.

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220 m.p.h.

Just as many European and Asian countries are expanding their high-speed rail networks and developing new systems, the United States must ensure that next-generation high-speed rail plays a role in the future of our major travel corridors.

Amtrak has a bold vision for next-generation high-speed rail in the Northeast, with trains operating at maximum speeds of 220 m.p.h. on a new, two-track route that would supplement the existing service. Such a network would save significant travel time, dramatically improve mobility, and mitigate congestion. The new capacity would also allow a larger share of intercity travel to be via high-speed rail, strengthening sustainable, energy-efficient development in the corridor's metropolitan areas.

Once fully built according to Amtrak's vision, the system would serve close to 18 million passengers by 2040, with room for up to 80 million annually as demand increases.

This is a revolutionary vision of the future, but one that is also attainable. Acela has shown that high-speed rail does work in America, and that prudent public investments in passenger rail can pay huge dividends. It also has shown Amtrak's ability to innovate and reinvent itself.

With this month's 10th anniversary of Acela service, we celebrate the vision, teamwork, and national commitment that brought America's first high-speed train into existence. The need for high-speed rail is real, and the demand is growing. We must commit to expanding it across the country.