December 03, 2003

Acela – a line of places like no other?

Brian Micklethwait | Rail General

By some convoluted blog-route which I now forget, I found my way to this posting by Highway, way back in October, about a new American train called Acela. He makes an entertaining observation about such trains as these:

Yet it also struck me that that's about the closest you can get to something moving that fast without trespassing. At this particular platform, the train was using the set of rails adjacent to the platform, and going at least 120 mph (that's a guess, but I'm fairly sure of it, as the trains are rated at 150 mph). It would be far too easy to be too close to that train (indeed, standing on the other side of the fence at track level felt too close). But there is no other vehicle moving that fast that you can legally and regularly get right next to. Cars just don't go that fast on the road, and race tracks have many features to separate the people from the cars. Airplanes don't reach speeds like that on the ground, and boats never go that fast. So I'd have to say this was a unique experience.

Highway offers no links, Transport Blog style, but Googling is a wonderful thing and here's the Acela website. If you go there, you'll find a map, and a list of all the stops on the line.

And here, it seems to me, is one of the juiciest straight(ish) lines of places to be found anywhere on this planet. It includes Washington DC and New York, for starters. Plus: Philadelphia, and, at the top end of it, Boston. Plus: Baltimore, Newark and New Haven. If a railway doesn't make sense here, then it doesn't make sense to have railways at all, anywhere.

Acela.gif

(If you go to the Acela site, click on the little map, and then mouse over the unname blue dots on the big map you then get, you get the names of all the other stops.)

Seriously, is there, anywhere else on earth, a line of potential rail destinations as impressive as that? The world contains many clusters of such places, but lines? No wonder they actually built a new railway there.

My guess is that the only potential challenger would be the other coast of the USA, but I'd love to be proved wrong. And anyway, does even that coast contain a line of places or just a vaguely concentrated zig-zag of them, like everywhere else. E.g. Britain.

Trackbacks

Symphony orchestras on Transport Blog (yes really)
And the other cultural blogging I did recently, to excuse the fact that I haven't done much here for the
Brian's Culture Blog on December 5, 2003

Comments

Thanks for noting the cultural richness of the Northeast Corridor. Unfortunately, it is not a new line. To provide for the Acela, Amtrak completed electrification from New Haven to Boston, something that the Morgan interests had conceived of for the old N.Y.N.H.&H. some 90 years ago. (The Morgan interests also began buying real estate for a line relocation north of New Haven, but a subsequent administration sold it to raise some money. As you might guess, the most likely buyer for a right-of-way suitable for a railroad was the Connecticut Turnpike Authority.) The Shore Line from about Stamford, Coon., north to Boston describes something like thirteen complete circles of curvature, which is why a tilting train had to be provided. The train is only good for 150 mph on a straight stretch through southern Massachusetts and again in southern Rhode Island. One of the high-speed stretches makes use of the 1830-era Canton (Mass.) viaduct, a classic stone arch structure that might looks just a bit overdesigned compared to anything on say, the Settle and Carlisle. And yes, passengers can get very close to the trains at speed at several locations on the railroad. One place that's particularly impressive is the southbound platforms at Attleboro, Massachusetts, where the Acelas are good for 125 and accelerating to 150. Rahway, New Jersey, offers some opportunities to get close to Acelas and the standard trains, although some use the through line.

Posted by Stephen Karlson on December 3, 2003

Stephen

Thanks for all that. Most informative. And of course I confused a new train with a new line. Big difference. I see that now.

Once again, the connection between railway building and property development is hammered home.

And, no doubt Patrick will be joining in this with something about Japan. I seem to recall him saying that the original ultra-high-speed line there was very logical, in a line-of-good-places way, but that later extensions of the principle made less sense.

Getting back to Acela, it is indeed startling in its "cultural richness". I count three world class symphony orchestras (Boston, New York, Philadelphia), and at least two more who will now be angry (Baltimore, Washington), plus I day say several more lesser ones. Wow.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on December 3, 2003

Yes, more on the symphony orchestra front:

In addition to Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, there are: the Newark, New Haven, Princeton and Wilmington Symphony Orchestras; the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra, and the Rhode Island Philharmonic, which is based in Providence.

There is also something called the Providence Mandolin Orchestra, but that's just four blokes with mandolins, which doesn't count.

Defending on how you define a proper orchestra, there are probably a dozen more, or many many more.

Orchestras have a way of sharing musicians. Non-permanent brass players, for example, jump about from orchestra to orchestra, helping out with Mahler and Bruckner symphonies (i.e. symphonies with lots more brass players than usual). So I'm guessing they use Acela a lot these days.

The Acela Symphony Orchestra would be something to hear. Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand anyone?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on December 3, 2003

Seriously, is there, anywhere else on earth, a line of potential rail destinations as impressive as that? The world contains many clusters of such places, but lines? No wonder they actually built a new railway there.

Um, how about Tokyo Nagoya Kyoto Osaka Hiroshima Hakata ? (Map here. Unlike in the US, they actually did build a new line there for the fast services. And they are now talking about building yet another one, although this probably doesn't make financial sense.

And, no doubt Patrick will be joining in this with something about Japan.

No, me first. I would think though that the Japanese corridor wins in terms of the total number of people who live along it, even if you drop the Sanyo line (ie the Hiroshima-Hakata extension). Although if you drop that, you should really drop the Boston section of the US line. That's also just the Shinkansen. There is at least one lesser railway parallel to it which stops at lots of other (In some ways fairly major) places along the way.

Posted by Michael Jennings on December 3, 2003

Actually, the full list of Shinkansen stations along that route is:

Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shin-Yokahama, Odawara, Atami, Mishima, Shin-fuji, Shizuoka, Kakegawa, Hamamatsu, Toyohashi, Mikawa-anjo, Nagoya, Gifu-hashima, Maibara, Kyoto, Shin-osaka, Shin-kobe, Nishi-akashi, Himeji, Aioi, Okayama, Shin-Kurashiki, Fukuyama, Shin-onomichi, Mihara, Higashi-hiroshima, Hiroshima, Shin-iwakuni, Tokuyama, Shin-yamaguchi, Asa, Shin-shimonoseki, Kokura, Hakata.

Different trains stop at different subsets of all those stations, but there are some very major cities on that list, particularly in the first half between Tokyo and Osaka, and maybe on to Fukuyama and Hiroshima. I think actually in terms of population density that nowhere in the US comes close to the southern coast of Honshu. Most of the population of Japan actually lives on that fairly narrow coastal strip.

By the way, "shin" simply means new, so if a station is named "Shin-Osaka" for instance, it means that an all new station was built for the Shinkansen, and therefore its station is at a different location from that for the trains running on slower and older lines.

Posted by Michael Jennings on December 3, 2003

I love Acela. As someone who lives in Washington, grew up in NYC and went to college in Baltimore, I can tell you that this is the best rail corridor in America. When you add in the time it takes to go through airport security and get from the airport to the center of any city on the line, it's as fast as flying, but you can stand up, use your electronic devices for the whole trip and joke about knives withough getting tackled by 25 federal marshalls.

Really, I don't know how people deal with the Delta and continantal shuttles.

Anyway, about the west coast - it's more or less a straight line between San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, but it's several times longer from end to end and wouldn't be nearly as efficient.

Posted by Randolph on December 3, 2003

I've driven, railed, and flown between Washington, DC and New York many times. While Acela is nice, it is usually more expensive and takes longer than flying for me--I don't live in Washington DC so the trip from where I live to Union Station adds a significant amount of total trip time, while National Airport is very nearly walking distance.

Driving is the least expensive, given that I already own a car, but takes the most effort and is the most variable in time, but if I have to haul a lot of stuff, is the most practical (having an EZPass* makes the various tolls a lot more bearable).

On the west coast, there has been discussion about a high speed rail link between San Francisco/San Jose to Los Angeles. It appears to be bogged down in politics and money issues. I've never taken the train between those destinations--I just looked it up and it currently takes about 11 hours!

*I don't think you've covered EZPass in the Tranport blog, but it is an RFID tag for tolls which often lets you bypass long toll lines by using EZPass only lanes.

Posted by Sam on December 4, 2003

Yep, the so-called "Northeast Cooridor" is by far the most heavily traveled passenger rail cooridor in the US (for the obvious reasons above), it's also the only major line on which Amtrak consistently profits, and is one of the few places where Americans consistently prefer train travel over other options. (mainly because train travel is poorly developed elsewhere)

The West coast is WAY more spread out, though a line from the Bay Area to LA is under preliminary development. Incredibly expensive, but bound to be very popular and successful if it ever get's built. Schwatzenegger appears to be supportive, so we'll see...

Excellent website on CA project here -

http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/ (note use of Eurostar train on the website, always thought that was kinda funny)

Going North from San Francisco, it's over 500 miles to the next major city, Portland, with very little in between, so rail is never going to beat air travel there.

The two other good highspeed candidates in the US are the Chicago "spoke" system - ie - lines radiating from Chicago to Milwaukee, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Indy, and Detroit. This is also certain to be successful if they ever get it off the gound. The segment between Chi. and Mil. also happens to be among the few (usually) profitable segments on Amtrak.

And second, the so-called "texas triangle" (DFW/San Antonio via Austin/Houston) which has been in start-stop mode since the 70s, originally defeated by intense lobbying by Southwest Airlines, but cropping up again.

Finally, they're actually building a line in Florida, which rather surprises me, as it's probably not as strong a candidate as the other places above, but worth watching to see how sucesful it is!

Posted by Nick on December 4, 2003

Wow, thanks for the post Brian. I've never actually ridden on the Acela train, just the Metroliner (the extra cash is too rich for me) but the Amtrak line is the only way I'm going to travel up to NYC or Boston in the future (if possible). The legroom, the service, the quietness, the lack of idiotic 'security' procedures, it all adds up to a really nice trip. I was just really struck by the experience of having something blow by me that fast, literally inches away if I were so bold.

Posted by Highway on December 4, 2003

Don't overlook the Boston Philharmonic, a semi-professional orchestra under Ben Zander that plays with far more passion than the Boston Symphony. If I had to choose between the two, I would definitely choose to listen to the former.

Posted by Chris on December 8, 2003

As well as the two fine period orchestras: Handel and Haydn Society and the Boston Baroque.

Doesn't make up for the lack of a first class opera company though.

Posted by Stirling Newberry on December 12, 2003

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