US NATIONAL passenger operator Amtrak inaugurated electric operation between Boston and New Haven on January 31 with the introduction of its Acela Regional service. The first southbound electric train was scheduled to depart from Boston at 06.15, but left 20min late owing to a fouled pantograph; arrival at New York’s Penn Station was 40min late.

Later in the morning, ceremonies were held at Boston’s South Station, complete with jazz band, ribbon cutting and a symbolic ’switching on’ of the catenary. ’After 50 years of pouring billions (of dollars) into an ever-expanding interstate highway system, there’s a new love affair across America for passenger rail’, said Tommy Thompson, Chairman of Amtrak’s board. Amtrak President George Warrington was equally enthusiastic. ’There are very few events in transportation over the last 50 years that will have the kind of significance that this investment will have’, he said.

To start, there will be just two daily Acela Regional trains between Boston and New York, with timings cut by 1h to just under 4h largely by eliminating the loco change at New Haven. Rolling stock comprises existing electric locos and heavily-rebuilt Amfleet coaches, but the original aspiration to eliminate diesel traction within 12months may be threatened as the tilting Acela Express trainsets may not be ready until mid-July.

Amtrak’s aim was to have the first two units in service last November. The launch was postponed until April after the prototype experienced wheel hunting and severe wheel wear during tests at Pueblo. The Federal Railroad Administration has now asked for additional testing between Boston and New York, which could delay the start-up until mid-summer. Last month Amtrak met representatives from the Alstom-Bombardier consortium to consider ways of accelerating the commissioning process, including testing more sets in parallel and daytime running between the peak periods as well as at night. Three sets are now being tested: one at Pueblo and two on the Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak’s Vice-President for High Speed Rail, Richard Sarles, insists that ’launching the new service this spring ... and having all 20 sets in service by the year’s end is still very much our goal.’ However, Warrington is concerned that Acela Express may be introduced prematurely, jeopardising efforts to boost Amtrak’s financial viability. ’I’m disappointed that we haven’t been able to launch the service ... but this is too important to not get right’, he said.