Out of the West: US cities on track for rail's Golden Age II

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - In the end it wasn't quite the second coming, but for a moment last Friday it seemed like it. We had booked seats on the noon train for a weekend in New York. Normally Washington-New York by rail is the exact opposite of Odysseus's return to Ithaca, an instantly forgettable experience where only the destination, not the journey, counts. Not so on this occasion.

With tremulous excitement we boarded Amtrak's Train 112 at Union Station - no ordinary, jolting Metroliner which would send the coffee cups flying, but a spanking new X-2000 'tilt-train', all the way from Sweden. Let Europeans, who have lived with such technology for decades, be blase. For America, Friday was but Day Five of the long-overdue era of the high-speed passenger train.

For far too long, the railway has been the poor relation of travel here. Once, of course, things were very different. This city of monuments boasts none more splendid than Union Station, a luminous cathedral of marble, gold and white granite. Or take its St Louis namesake, once the 'Gateway to the West', the largest rail terminal of them all. The building is my favourite in the United States: from the outside a castle, which opens on to a breath-taking Main Hall that is a multicoloured fusion of Gothic, Art Nouveau and the Arabian Nights. But the station closed in 1978, and the Hall is the lobby of a Hyatt hotel. Where no fewer than 31 platforms once stood, there is now a shopping mall. Of those mighty trains which crossed a continent, just a few carriages have been preserved as museum pieces.

And that sorry tale applies across the country. Before last week, the only US train trip which whetted my appetite was in October, when George Bush tried to revive his electoral fortunes with a Trumanesque whistle-stop tour. The stunt, of course, was a political failure; but for any train enthusiast, that 250-mile ride through the woods and gentle hills of Wisconsin aboard a yellow and red carriage named Santa Fe, complete with upper-deck observation lounge, bar and hot buffet, was something akin to paradise.

Measured against such peerless standards the X-2000, with which Amtrak has been experimenting since 1 February, one journey every day, was something less than a return to the golden age of rail. True, it boasts such late 20th-century gadgetry as on-board phone and fax services and in-seat audio entertainment. But the electronic information displays in each carriage reminded me of endless waits under similar devices for tubes on the Northern Line.

The 'tilt' technology may make for a smoother ride, but hardly for a faster one. The X-2000 is capable of 155mph, but under federal laws may not exceed 125mph. With five stops between Washington and New York, it lopped only five minutes off Friday's scheduled three-hour journey time.

Nor was the buffet much to write home about. Only one proper meal was on offer, an undistinguished chicken roulade at dollars 9.95 (pounds 7) a go. The rest was self- service, involving those maddeningly flimsy cardboard trays, familiar to anyone who has been to a baseball game here, which are prone to collapse when laden with more than a couple of cans of beer.

But I must not be churlish; a start has finally been made. If ever there was a country which screamed for hi-tech, high-speed trains it is this one - above all in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. From city centre to city centre, a genuinely fast train link would match the existing air shuttle for speed. And if there is a less pleasant highway in the US than the Eastern seaboard's 1-95, featuring convoys of huge freight trucks and periodic road works, I've yet to see it. Unlike the roads and airports, however, America's rail system now operates at barely a quarter of capacity.

After this three-month trial of the X-2000, Amtrak says it will test other advanced foreign-made trains which can use existing track. Once a final decision has been taken, the new rolling stock may be introduced elsewhere. The runs between San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, between Chicago and Detroit and St Louis, and the Texas triangle of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio are but three obvious candidates. And has not the new President made modernisation of America's transport infrastructure a top priority? Indeed, my experience on the X-2000 offered a strange omen. Ten minutes out of Washington, the waitress came by taking coffee orders. In the US, it is customary for such personnel to wear lapel badges with their names. Hers was: 'B Clinton.'