The hassles of weather, flight delays and traffic congestion on the way to airports have increasingly soured air travelers. “With the time differential cut as Amtrak proposes,” says Baumohl, “it will make a lot of practical sense for passengers to take the train from the heart of one city to another.” But of course the system needs to work -- which is why Amtrak is studiously investing in staightening track curves, incorporating tilt technology in cars and upgrading passenger amenities. The hope is that the Northeast effort will help lay the trackwork for other regions of the country and finally give the agency its ticket to success before it runs out of time: Amtrak is on notice from Congress not to expect federal help after 2002.
Amtrak announced on Tuesday that it is following the example of Europe and Japan and putting America on the fast track. Starting in October, a $2 billion service featuring new 150-mph “Acela” trains will race along Amtrak’s Northeast corrridor between Boston, New York and Washington. The goal is to cut as much as 90 minutes on the four-and-a-half-hour trip from Boston to New York and 30 minutes on the three-hour trip from New York to Washington -- at a fare that will be 30 percent less than that of a shuttle flight. “If Amtrak can live up to the billing,” says TIME senior economic reporter Bernard Baumohl, “this could provide a whole new source of revenue for the railroad and pose a real threat to commuter airlines.”