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Trains Fast As A Speeding Bullet

Train travel between Boston, New York and Washington will soon become much swifter, CBS News Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman reports.

Amtrak unveiled the nation's first high-speed rail system, the "Acela", capable of speeds of 150 mph, on Tuesday.

The long-awaited "bullet" trains, already common in Europe and Japan, will start running in October. They will be tested along tracks that Amtrak currently uses for its popular Northeast Corridor service.

Amtrak has electrified the entire 470-mile route, straightened curves and introduced 20 new train sets with so-called tilt technology. The company hopes to chop 90 minutes off its 4 1/2-hour Boston-New York service and a half-hour off its current 3-hour Washington-New York service.

With Acela, Amtrak wants to compete with airplanes and automobiles on city-to-city trips.

As added incentives, the fare will be about 30 percent less than the current $199 walk-up air-shuttle rate.

Amtrak will also expand some of its amenities. In addition to offering 304 business-class seats, the trains will have audio entertainment and power outlets at each seat, enclosed overhead bins, a dining car and full lavatories.

Amtrak views the Northeast Corridor as a model for other high-speed rail proposals in the Great Lakes region, along the Southeast and Gulf Coast and throughout California and the Pacific Northwest.

"Once we start in the Northeast Corridor, the next step will be the Midwest. The third step will be the South. The fourth step will be out West," Amtrak President George Warrington said.

Outsiders also hope Acela will finally convince America to follow Europe's lead toward a transportation system that offers an alternative to congested highways and crowded airport terminals.

"It provides a reasonable and perhaps better third option for travel in the area," said Anne Chettle, spokeswoman for the High-Speed Ground Transportation Association, a Washington rail organization.

Amtrak has not turned a profit since it was founded in 1971. The General Accounting Office reported that the railroad lost an average of $47 per passenger in fiscal 1997.

In 1997, Congress ordered Amtrak to become self-sufficient by 2002. It provided a $2.2 billion cash infusion and a steadily declining annual subsidy that ends in three years.

Last year, the railroad topped $1 billion in revenues for the first time, thanks to the highest passenger rates in a decade and its best on-time performance in 13 years. It views high-speed rail as the final piece of its move toward profitability.

"Acela is more than just a name for Amtrak's new high-speed trains," Warrington said. "Acela is a brand representing a whole new way of doing business."

Amtrak transports about 9 million people each year along the Northeast Corridor - some 7 million between New York and Washington and an additional 2 million between New York and Boston.