Filet mignon sits on the table, rows of televisions are tuned to CNN, and small groups of people are clustered in private conference suites.
Is this any way to run a railroad?
Perhaps. Several hundred people got a sneak peak yesterday at a high-speed train that could shape the future of travel in the Northeast.
The German-made InterCityExpress, or ICE, underwent a dress rehearsal, carrying VIPs on a round-trip excursion between Washington and New York.
Starting today, ordinary passengers get the same chance to try out a train that is fancier and faster than any other in the United States. Amtrak is testing the train through Dec. 17 on the regular Metroliner run, which includes Baltimore.
With its bullet-shaped engine, streamlined white exterior and red stripe, the ICE is a rocket wrapped around a lot of luxury.
The interior is reminiscent of the first-class section of a jumbo jet, complete with beverage service, complimentary headphones and gourmet meals.
"This is more elegant than anything we've ever seen," said Edward J. Lombardi, Amtrak's manager of performance and tests.
The train also packs a punch. It has performed at speeds of up to 250 mph in Germany and 162 mph on its U.S. trial run.
But it will probably go no faster than 135 mph during the public demonstration.
Amtrak officials said the speed restriction is necessary to ensure safety. Similar restraints were placed on a high-speed competitor to the ICE, the Swedish-made X2000 tilt-train that Amtrak tested earlier.
While Amtrak's goal is to eventually trim time off the Washington-to-Boston Metroliner schedule, passengers don't need to be moving fast to appreciate the amenities.
"I'm very impressed," said Kathy Burk-Thomas, manager of a Wheaton travel agency. "I'm not sure it's a smooth ride, but it's quiet and comfortable."
Previously in use in Germany, the ICE is being leased by a joint venture of Siemens Transportation Systems Inc. and AEG Westinghouse Transportation Systems Inc., both U.S. subsidiaries of German corporations.
The demonstration is important to Amtrak officials who are attempting to introduce high-speed rail by 1997.
Amtrak wants to gauge public reaction to the X2000 and ICE before it designs specifications for a U.S. version of a high-speed train that will travel the Northeast corridor at 150 mph.
While the tilt-train shaved time off the schedule by leaning into turns, the ICE simply relies on greater horsepower to boost its speed.
The stakes are high.
The contract to supply at least 26 sets of engines and cars at $18 million to $20 million each, with an option for up to 25 more, could be worth as much as $1 billion to the winning supplier.
The 285-seat ICE train includes first-class coaches with private suites and 33 "Deluxe" seats that are extra wide.
Some include video screens built into seat backs. The seats cost $30 on top of the regular Metroliner fare of $88 between Baltimore and New York.
The train's suites can seat up to five passengers. The compartments can be reserved for $100.
Coach travelers won't get the snacks, beverages and audio service that is available in first class.
Meals in the dining car (filet mignon, Caesar salad, bourbon pecan pie, etc.) cost extra for everyone, although the first-class ticket-holders get priority seating.
The ICE leaves Baltimore weekdays and selected Saturdays at 12:33 p.m., arriving in New York at 2:55 p.m.
The train departs New York at 4:30 p.m. and pulls into Baltimore at 6:39 p.m.