The Blog

  • August 9, 2011
  • Riding the Rails

    I took the Acela so-called high speed train from Boston to New York on Sunday.  High speed rail in America is nothing like its cousins in the rest of the world, Acela never goes much faster than a car and its only saving grace is that there is little traffic.  Of course there are still times when the train has to stop on a siding to let another go by in the opposite direction but generally the stops are infrequent.

    Sunday we stopped for a mechanical reason.  Somewhere in the woods in Rhode Island we stopped and were informed by the crew that they needed to inspect all of the wheels for some problem.  The process took about 30 minutes and when it was over we proceeded secure in the knowledge that the wheels would not fall off.

    What got my attention in the process was the way the crew referred to the train.  Some crews refer to ships in the feminine, airlines are more clinical and call their equipment plain old equipment or “this aircraft”.  Train people are different.  The first time I heard the crew refer to the train I thought I had misheard something but then it happened again and I realized this must be train speak.  They call the train a “train set” the same thing we used to call our trains as kids.

    Train set works for me though I would have never guessed it if I lived to be two hundred.  Maybe train set and all its rinky-dink associations is part of the reason congress chronically under funds Amtrak.  Just an idea.

    Published: 12 years ago


    • September 21st, 2011 at 1:33 pm    

      Railbed improvements will only get one so far, and mixed commuter/intercity is, as you note, far from ideal. Yet there seems to be no purse or stomach to build a new right of way parallel to the NEC, and so incremental upgrades seem to be the best we can hope for. I often think if the whole northeast could conceive of its transportation solutions as one coherent unit, that there’d be far less reliance on flights up and down the corridor and that there would be sufficient demand for modern HSR that the money would be found to accomplish that, but the US Federal/state divide seems incapable of forming such solutions, so I don’t see a positive way forward. I wrote more on this topic here:

    • September 18th, 2011 at 10:23 pm    

      Two quick comments… the Acela travels at times as fast as 150 mph, and averages 71 mph from Washington to Boston. Not great, but better than a car. NYT illustration here:

      Additionally, the Acela is a different sort of train than what most Americans are used to. The units that make it up, its consist as railroaders call the array, is permanently coupled via draw bars, rather than assembled from an engine and various cars connected by couplers. Since the array is essentially permanent, the two power cars and six coaches are called a trainset (one word). This is common in any environment where the cars stay married, and you can hear various transit agencies use the term, too, as do foreign HSR operators. Amtrak has 20 Acela trainsets.

      • September 19th, 2011 at 9:10 am    

        Thanks for your comment.
        Seventy one is simply unacceptable for a high-speed trainset and so is “at times as fast as 150”. The problem rests with a congressional unwillingness to fund rail bed improvements and whole rail bed construction as the commuter rails use the same tracks as freight trains. The rails cannot accommodate high speeds and that’s problem number 1. Trainset is, in light of everything else, an unfortunate if understandable anachronism.

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