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Is Amtrak's Fast Train Plan On Fast Track to Nowhere?

Passenger railway hopes to save Northeast project from GOP cuts

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PICTURE a state-of-the-art business center with fax machine, photocopier, and other amenities. A lounge with low- and high-stool seating for informal gatherings. And audio and video entertainment for relaxation.

Amtrak wants to buy 24 trains with these and other contemporary features for its Washington-Boston route. Capable of traveling 150 miles per hour, they would replace aging Metroliners on the Washington-New York leg and Northeast Express trains that travel from Boston to New York. The new trains would compete with airline shuttles and help reduce traffic near airports and on highways.

But Congress could derail not only the railroad's plans but also the carrier itself. The Northeast High Speed Rail Improvement Project has been listed for possible elimination as part of congressional budget-cutting efforts. The Senate GOP proposes phasing out Amtrak operating grants; House Republicans propose phasing out capital subsidies as well.

Chris Krese, spokesman for House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member William Clinger (R) of Pennsylvania, says the program's funding is in ''wait and see'' mode. The committee will address the matter this month; the full House, in July.

But David Carol, the project's vice president, says: ''We're optimistic Congress will retain sufficient funding. This is the most complex procurement Amtrak's ever undertaken.''

Thus far, $712,000 has been appropriated for the estimated $1.7 billion project, which also includes purchase of two diesel- or turbine-powered trains for tests and demonstrations. A billion dollars is needed for New York-Boston infrastructure; $650 million would buy and maintain all new trains.

Amtrak expects the trains will make rail travel more competitive with air travel for these reasons:

* Speed. The trains are 25 m.p.h. or more faster than Metroliners. Washington-New York rail travel takes 2 hours, 50 minutes, but high-speed trains could make it 20 minutes quicker. The northern trip takes 4-1/4 hours because curves force trains to go only 90-100 m.p.h.; new trains could do it in 2 hours, 55 minutes.

Planes complete the routes in one hour each. But getting to and from airports can take just as long because of traffic, Mr. Carol says.

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