Turbos faster

Sir - The two articles dealing with Amtrak’s efforts to increase passenger train speeds in the Northeast Corridor (RG 11.96 pp721-28) contained several statements deserving further clarification. I was a personal friend of the late Alan R Cripe, acknowledged as one of the foremost rail equipment designers in the US, who was the designer and promoter of the United Aircraft TurboTrain.

The TurboTrain demonstrated the ability to perform daily New York - Boston ’Shore Line’ trips in as little as 3h 44min on the then Penn Central Railroad as early as 1970 - the fastest ever booked timing on this run. Compare the 4h timings highlighted in your articles.

In fact, throughout the 1950s the New Haven Railroad regularly timed three trains daily each way in 4h, with one, the Advanced Merchants Limited timed at 3h 55min. Amtrak too had a brief fling with its New England Metroliner on a 3h 55min schedule in the early 1980s.

To this day the TurboTrain holds a record for a demonstration run. On December 20 1967 it achieved 170·8 mile/h between New Brunswick and Trenton on Penn Central tracks. Sponsored by the Department of Transportation, it easily surpassed the 160 mile/h ballasted with a full passenger load that was specified in the contract. On board were 150 riders who wanted to be part of what promised to be a challenge to establish a non-electrified passenger train record.

During 1968 a TurboTrain operated on test on the New Haven ’Shore Line’ from South Station, Boston, to Woodlawn Junction, New York in 2h 36min with four stops, conclusively demonstrating that the bi-directional, guided-axle, passive tilt body technology could reduce New York - Boston timings dramatically. All this was accomplished on track demonstrably inferior to that which Amtrak now possesses and with signalling not configured for high speed running. Given the infrastructure improvements in place, it is quite disappointing that Amtrak cannot schedule any train faster than 4h 15min.

In many minds there remains a healthy scepticism as to whether Amtrak can reliably achieve a 3h New York - Boston running time. More importantly, will it be able to divert as many airline passengers as predicted?

While Amtrak claims to be the carrier of choice between New York and Washington, this statistic includes all intermediate destinations. If only end-to-end traffic is examined - the air shuttles do not serve intermediate cities - Amtrak is seen to carry only 45% of all air/rail travellers. Of those who do choose rail, fully two-thirds choose the slower, less expensive conventional train rather than the premium fare Metroliners. The expense account, time-sensitive traveller continues to cast his vote at the airport rather than the rail ticket office - and it is just this passenger that Amtrak aims to capture with its American Flyer trainsets.

Albert L Papp, Jr

Transportation Consultant, Trailblazer Technologies, Millington, New Jersey, USA