The snub-nosed Acela Express made the Washington-to-New York trip in two hours, 26 minutes, arriving two minutes ahead of schedule and setting an Amtrak speed record when it hit 135 mph in New Jersey. The old record was 125 mph. The train was expected to reach its top speed of 150 mph later on the trip from New York to Boston.
"We deliver!" Tommy Thompson, the Wisconsin governor and chairman of Amtrak, said emphatically to the crowd gathered to welcome the French and Canadian-built train into New York's Penn Station.
Before leaving Washington, Thompson called the debut of Acela Express one of the "truly defining moments"for this generation of Americans.
He shattered a bottle of California champagne on the train's distinctive tapered nose in a christening ceremony, showering those nearby with bubbly.
When regular passenger service in the Northeast begins Dec. 11, America finally will have a rail line comparable to the high-speed train service common in Europe and Japan. Amtrak officials and rail enthusiasts hope favorable publicity will increase the demand for similar high-speed lines elsewhere in the country.
"Today's inaugural run symbolizes the beginning of a new era of American transportation, not only in the Northeast but eventually across the entire country," Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said.
Acela Express will cut about a half-hour off the current Metroliner service between Washington and New York and about 45 minutes off the New York-to-Boston trip.
Speed is not the only attraction of Acela Express. Passengers on the VIP-only maiden trip remarked about the spacious restrooms, oversized windows and brightly colored blue-and-purple seats.
The salmon, proscuitto and caviar hors d'oeuvres enjoyed by the VIP guests were a one-shot deal, however.
Amtrak and high-speed rail advocates have much riding on Acela Express. If it's a success, it will boost Amtrak's revenues and could lead to other high-speed trains elsewhere in the country.
If it fails, however, Acela Express could be the swan song for Amtrak, the federally subsidized railway that is under orders from Congress to become financially self-sufficient by 2003. Amtrak is relying on the service to earn $180 million a year.
Amtrak President George Warrington said he is convinced Americans will choose the comfort and amenities of trains like Acela Express - so long as the trains travel fast enough to link major cities in two to three hours.
"We've been willing to spend billions and billions of dollars on highways but reluctant to spend money on the alternatives," said Anne Chettle, director of public affairs for the High-Speed Ground Transportation Association, a trade group in Washington.
"Hopefully, if the Acela is successful, maybe that will start to change the attitude."
Once a leader in rail travel, the United States has fallen decades behind other countries. Japan's Shinkansen trains, introduced just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, regularly hit 186 mph and have reached maximum speeds of 275 mph in test runs. France's TGV trains, launched in the late 1960s, also cruise at 186 mph.
Passenger trains in Spain, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden and Italy regularly exceed 100 mph. South Korea, Australia and Taiwan are developing high-speed train lines.
In the United States, the top speed for most passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor - the area between Washington and Boston where tracks have been modernized - is 79 mph.
Acela Express operates with a sensor-driven tilt system that allows the train to maintain high speeds through curves. Problems with the tilt technology, along with premature wheel wear, forced a delay in plans to begin Acela Express in October 1999.
Amtrak received the first of 20 eight-car train sets last month from the consortium building Acela Express - Canada's Bombardier Transportation and France's Alstom Ltd. All 20 trains should be in service by next summer.
A nonstop trip from New York to Washington aboard the Acela Express will take two hours, 28 minutes, about a half-hour faster than the current Metroliner service, which it is replacing. A trip from New York to Boston will take three hours, 23 minutes, about 45 minutes faster than current trips.
A one-way coach ticket between Washington and New York will be $143, up from $122 on Metroliner. Travel between New York and Bosto will cost $120, compared to $57 on conventional Amtrak trains, which will continue to run in the Northeast Corridor.
For now, Acela Express will reach its top speed only through portions of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Elsewhere, it will be slowed by congested tracks, aging tunnels and bridges, and safety concerns at grade crossings. Only money can fix those problems.
A bill still alive in the lame-duck session of Congress would allow Amtrak to raise $10 billion over 10 years through the sale of bonds to finance high-speed train lines around the country. States would cover 20 percent of the cost.
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