Acela run expected to match U.S. rail speed record of 165 mph

An Acela train passes through the BWI station.

Sometime after 8 p.m. Thursday, a train will come roaring out of the north from Delaware toward Perryville at 165 miles per hour, matching the fastest speed ever attained on a U.S. rail line.

After putting on the brakes, the Acela Express will make the 13-minute run back to Wilmington before sprinting down the track for seven more round trips by 2 a.m.

Similar tests also are to be carried out this week and next on three other sections of track — in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts — the first step in upgrading passenger service in those areas to 160 mph. Federal regulations require tests of 5 mph above maximum operating speeds.

But on a larger scale, the speed trials signal Amtrak's desire to push ahead on a $151 billion upgrade of its Northeast Corridor service by 2040. The railroad has warned that without major improvements, it will be unable to keep up with passenger demand.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole said Monday that the Maryland-Delaware test runs will be conducted on the same 21-mile track segment used for high-speed tests before the introduction of Acela service in 2000, when the test train topped out at 165 mph.

Trains in Europe and Asia operate at about 200 mph, with China's newest train clocking up to 268 mph. Amtrak's top speed is 135 mph on its Washington-to-New York Acela run and 150 mph on the New York-to-Boston leg.

But a new generation of trains capable of covering the nearly 200 miles between Washington and New York in a shade over 90 minutes is the centerpiece of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor plan.

The blueprint, released in July, calls for upgrading tracks and signals between Washington and New York, purchasing an additional 40 Acela trains to double high-speed service between the cities, and expanding Washington's Union Station.

Other parts of the plan cover upgrades between New York and Boston.

Amtrak says that over the past five years, its share of the Washington-New York market has grown to 75 percent, up from 35 percent a little more than a decade ago. Its top producer — Acela — runs near capacity and annually produces $550 million in revenue while spending $360 million.

Given the competition, low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines is eliminating service between Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and two New York metropolitan airports, LaGuardia and Newark.

By 2040, the railroad expects Northeast Corridor ridership to climb from 12 million passengers annually to 43.5 million. Without a major investment in trains, tracks, tunnels and stations, the system will break, Amtrak officials warn.

But the $151 billion plan lacks a dedicated funding source.

In fiscal year 2011, Amtrak earned $2.71 billion, incurred $3.95 billion in expenses, and had a maintenance backlog of $6 billion, making it dependent on an annual appropriation from Congress to close the gap. The Obama administration spent $8 billion in stimulus funds on high-speed rail in 2009 but was unsuccessful in lobbying Congress for $50 billion to fund high-speed rail over six years.

The railroad has enlisted the help of a team of experts to find other funding options, such as fare increases and a partnership with private investors.