ONE MORNING LAST NOVEMBER, a glitzy gala was in full swing in the middle of the cluttered concourse at New York’s Penn Station. Passersby peered beyond the security guards and velvet rope to witness a big band blowing jazz and waiters toting silver trays of canapes. Then, as if time had leapt backward into 1970s TV-land, Henry Winkler–a.k.a. the Fonz from Happy Days–appeared at the speaker’s podium. The motorcycle-riding Fonzie was an odd choice to herald the inaugural run of the Acela Express, Amtrak’s new, high-speed Boston-to Washington train. But glamorous references to rail travel aren’t easy to find in contemporary American culture. The best contender, the train-helicopter chase in Mission Impossible, comes with a rather unfortunate title.

Amtrak’s mission, if not impossible, is beyond the Fonz’s capabilities. Train travel is still perceived in the U.S. as a second-class mode of transportation. To Congress, the government-subsidized Amtrak is an unwanted stepchild, under legislation to break even by the end of 2002 or go into liquidation. As one Amtrak official was heard to say, the 150-mph electric Acela is the corporation’s last chance: “We’ve bet the farm on this one.” A one-year delay in its launch, due to equipment problems, hasn’t helped the gamble. The contrast couldn’t be greater in Europe, where governments pour billions into high-speed rail. The 186-mph French TGV trains have been running for nearly 25 years. Spain reinvented the TGV as the AVE for the Seville-to-Madrid run in 1992, and more than a million passengers used it in the first month. Germany’s high-speed ICE train, designed by Alexander Neumeister, is now in its third generation.

In the U.S., trains seem to have been frozen in time, coupled in the public mind with hobos and freight. When the Acela train slid into the New York station, the photographers and TV cameramen who stood on the platform focused their lenses not on a futuristic-looking piece of equipment, but on something almost stately. The Acela cuts the journey time between Boston and Washington to roughly five and a half hours, but Amtrak is not out to portray Acela as a European-style speed demon. Far from it; Acela’s brand identity, defined by a sail-like logo, is built on the idea of a “Zen-like standing still while you’re moving at 150 mph,” according to Brent Oppenheimer of OH&CO, who worked on the project with the design consultancy firm IDEO. Acela’s slogans–“Recharge, Unwind” and “Prepare, Ponder, Relax”–are more suited to a spa than a speedy railway.

The train itself, despite a racy snub nose, is firmly in keeping with the American railroad tradition. The body is mostly stain less steel, and the 304-seat interior has a prosaic feel. Lighting is bright and seats are upholstered in a wool-nylon fabric in corporate-looking blue/purple/green variations. Other materials–gray strips of carpet flooring, imitation wood veneers, aluminum edging, and bulletproof windows–are more rugged than luxurious. In fact, the Acela bears many hallmarks of a Detroit car: it’s safe, comfortable, thoroughly market-tested, and designed by committee to ensure public approval. Even the luxury add-ons, such as in-seat audio entertainment, seem modeled on the kinds of amenities that auto dealers emphasize to sell cars.

It might have been different. When the project first went out to tender in the early 1990s, several companies submitted bids, including Siemens, which developed the ICE train. Amtrak awarded the $710-million contract to the consortium rumored to have made the lowest bid, Bombardier Transportation, of Canada, and Alstom, of France. Bombardier–which developed the cars; Alstom provided the running gear–was better known for boxy regional trains and subway cars than for premium high-speed equipment. The ensuing design process could be characterized as an effort by Amtrak and its consultants to turn a standard Bombardier design into a world-class travel experience.

The Amtrak project management team first realized it needed help when Bombardier, its Montreal-based design consultant, Jean Labbe, and seat manufacturer Morelli Designers began submitting plans in 1996. Within months, lacking the experience to give design direction, Amtrak called in IDEO Product Development. IDEO put together a small Acela-specific team, many of whose members had worked on the Spanish AVE train revamp.

A painstaking design development stage ensued, with Bombardier presenting what Oppenheimer describes as a “relatively off-the-shelf” scheme and with IDEO suggesting and designing changes. The number of parties involved and their differing interests made the going difficult. Former IDEO designer Nick Oakley describes the process as a “multidimensional political fandango.” Labbe and Bombardier were faced with another interfering design group. “I felt that we were battling against Bombardier tradition and conventional practice,” says Oakley. “If you tried to introduce interesting materials or fabrics or carpeting, they’d say, ‘We want the carpet to be laid in strips so you can rip it up and replace it, and it has to be fireproof, and these are our suppliers.”‘ Bombardier was eager to get the project out on time and within budget. (As of press time, Bombardier had not returned Interior’s calls for comment.) IDEO argued that the Acela project had to be positioned as part of an overall strategy for the Northeast C orridor and that design decisions should be based on a general service philosophy. This, according to Oppenheimer, meant asking basic questions such as, “Who were we designing the equipment for? What kind of traveler?”

Amtrak, for its part, paid great heed to market research data from passengers and staff, wanting every design decision validated. Compared with the officials who’d overseen the AVE’s development, the U.S. company gave its designers a short leash. “Amtrak is at one end of the spectrum and the Spanish train was at the other, in terms of the willingness to take the experience and point of view of the design teams involved,” says Adrian Corry, who worked on the IDEO team. “Everyone [at Amtrak] was very cautious in their approach.”

The most dramatic revisions to result from the “fandango” included a complete redesign of the cafe car, which initially had been conceived to look like a stainless-steel “airplane galley,” according to Corry. IDEO proposed raising the windows four inches so that when the train tilted on curves, snacking passengers saw the horizon rather than an unsettling view of railroad tracks. With the help of Amtrak data on catering staff requests, the designers reconfigured the cafe service area to discourage Amtrak personnel from turning their backs to customers while preparing food. Curved wood-veneered and polyester-resin-topped counters, barstool seating, and video feeds encouraged passengers to see the area as a short-stop eatery rather than a long-stay dining room.

IDEO also reconfigured the toilets as part of a separate vestibule, away from the passenger seating area. Each car has two bathrooms, one of which meets ADA standards. Amtrak wanted the restrooms to be upgraded to the level of hotel facilities; IDEO provided a window, a large mirror, and better lighting.

Amtrak’s sensitivity to customer requests and its preoccupation with safety also yielded some idiosyncrasies. Acela’s tilting technology ensures a smoother ride than any other U.S. train, but Amtrak was fearful of overhead luggage flying around at high speeds. They insisted on closed containers rather than

the open baskets preferred on European trains. More elaborate is a feature that allows passengers to rotate their seats 180 degrees. Amtrak argues that rotating seats facilitate meetings and encourage social contact. “Amtrak was absolutely determined to do this,” says Corry, arguing for a stationery model. “If the seats were fixed the train would be a generation better than it is.” Oakley adds that a nonrotating seat would have required less space and facilitated integration of the cantilevered tables in the seat backs.

If there’s truth in the notion that innovation doesn’t test well, and focus groups react against change, this wasn’t Amtrak’s concern. Acela’s design was ultimately dictated by a desire not to scare off passengers with high styling. “Truly it was designed for American travelers, and a tremendous amount of research went into the design–everything from consumer testing of the seats to questions about color,” says Amtrak’s executive vice president Barbara Richardson. Or, as Oppenheimer notes, “From the beginning Amtrak stated that whatever we did, there had to be a significant return.”

By the end of the year, Amtrak plans to have 20 high-speed trains in operation and the entire Northeast Corridor rebranded under the Acela identity. Even the old regional trains will carry the Acela logo, which IDEO proposed should become synonymous with the idea of a “seamless journey.” The benchmark will be the Acela Express train, but the transformation is meant to be achieved through systemwide improvements to station interiors, signage, and customer service.

It’s an ambitious program. And everything now hangs on reputation. Before, Amtrak positioned its premium rail services as distinctive brands. Now, one bad passenger experience on a local run can take the wind out of all the other Acela sails. Congress is also watching closely. The Acela-improved Northeast Corridor is projected to bring in $180 million a year for Amtrak, stimulating high-speed programs proposed for other areas of the country. Yet Amtrak’s national deficit for 1999 was close to $500 million.

One missing component of the rebranding exercise and Acela advertising salvos is the environmental argument. Even by conservative Department of Energy estimates, an electric train offers energy-efficient d distance travel with relatively low environmental impact. According to a DoE study, a train passenger uses slightly more than half the amount of fuel per mile of an airborne traveler. Electric trains create air pollution only at the power source. Since they run between city centers, they’re less likely than planes to require passengers to use other forms of transport. “How many people walk to the airport?” asks Ross Capon of the National Association of Rail road Passengers. “The fact that the train leaves from a downtown area means that it reinforces the vitality of an energy-efficient city center.”

To survive and grow in the U.S., however, rail needs a massive investment. The “High Speed Rail Investment Act” now before the Senate would allow Amtrak to issue $10 billion in bonds to raise capital. And to make its case to a Republican-controlled House, Amtrak has one strong argument: federal support for highways last year was $28.5 billion; for air travel, $10.1 billion; and for rail, less than $600 million. Says Barbara Richardson, “What we’re arguing for is not to be supported on the operating front but to be provided with the necessary capital. We can generate profits from a well-run system.”

For now, Amtrak is left to hope that air and road congestion will help its case, and, as word of the swift, comfy East Coast ride spreads, that Americans will begin to see rail in a new light. “I think that the popularity and strength of the service will really come through word of mouth,” hopes Richardson, “and when people hear that there is another way to go, I think they’ll leave their car keys at home.”

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