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Amtrak's Acela turns 10; all eyes on new high-speed rail initiatives

As America's sole high-speed rail line enters its second decade, critics and proponents ponder new possibilities and current realities.

High-speed rail has just observed its 10th year in the United States -- in at least part of the country. Amtrak's Acela high-speed train just celebrated its 10th birthday, and more high-speed initiatives are being contemplated for both the Northeast Corridor and across the country.

In fiscal 2010, Amtrak reports, 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.

This week may see record-breaking ridership across the Amtrak system. a quasi-public passenger railroad formed in 1971. Amtrak reports it had a record-breaking Thanksgiving holiday travel week carrying 704,446 passengers, up 2.7 percent over last year. In addition, 134,230 passengers rode Amtrak on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving – itself a new record for the single busiest day in the history of the railroad. Acela ridership was up more than 13% from the previous year during the Thanksgiving travel period -- from 55,000 to 62,400.

Amtrak has also unveiled a blueprint for new high-speed rail initiatives in the Northeast corridor in the years to come. (Covered in depth here by SmartPlanet's Andrew Nusca.) In September, the railroad issued a roadmap that envisions trains operating up to 220 mph (354 kph) on a new two-track corridor resulting in a trip time of about three hours between Washington and Boston -- cutting in half or better the current schedules.

At an average speed of 137 mph (220 kph), a trip between Washington and New York would take just 96 minutes, about one hour faster than today, Amtrak says. For the trip between New York and Boston, the average speed would be 148 mph (238 kph) and take just 84 minutes, or a time savings of more than two hours.

However, while Amtrak tries to look forward to a sleeker, high-speed future, many wonder how it's going to keep its current creaky system going, which was cobbled together from the neglected ruins of private railroads on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1960s and 1970s.  Jim McClellan, a retired railroad executive and Federal Railroad Administration official who helped create Amtrak in the 1970s, is quoted in The Washington Post as calling Amtrak's vision "highly unrealistic," observing that "Amtrak has so many real-life problems today they need to be addressing, including repairs on an ancient system."

Plus, Amtrak is competing for federal funds, of which $10 billion has already gone to support high-speed rail initiatives in California and Florida.

Still, the Amtrak concept plan, A Vision for High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), shows a financially viable route could be developed. Upon its full build-out in 2040, high-speed train ridership would approach 18 million passengers with room to accommodate up to 80 million annually as demand increases in the years and decades that follow. Departures of high-speed trains would expand from an average of one to four per hour in each direction, with additional service in the peak periods, and total daily high-speed rail departures would increase from 42 today to as many as 148 in 2040.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com