Amtrak halts all high-speed service after finding cracks

Several Acela locomotives had shock-absorber defect

August 14, 2002|By Marcia Myers and Johnathon E. Briggs | Marcia Myers and Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Amtrak indefinitely suspended its Acela Express train service yesterday after cracks were discovered in a shock absorber beneath a locomotive in Boston, and additional inspections revealed similar failures in seven of nine other trains examined.

Without the 18 high-speed trains, many of Amtrak's 40,000 daily passengers in the Northeast Corridor faced delays yesterday or squeezed onto packed and slower Metroliners or Acela Regional trains.

Officials said late yesterday that the trains' manufacturer, Bombardier of North America, had promised to outline a repair plan today. But it was unclear what those repairs would entail and how long it might take to get the trains back in service.

Meanwhile, Amtrak plans to replace some of the high-speed trains with their slower predecessors.

"We are moving to put as much equipment into service as we can because it is our most densely traveled route," said Amtrak spokesman William Schulz. The cancellation of the trains reduced Amtrak service by 25 percent between Boston and Washington yesterday, and service today is expected to be about the same.

The parts failure is the latest in a string of problems confronting North America's first high-speed rail service - a sleek, blue-and-silver train on which Amtrak pinned its future nearly two years ago, spending $2.8 billion.

In recent months, equipment problems have substantially hampered service. Last month, 35 Acela Express trains were canceled either en route or before departure because of equipment failures. That is four times the number earlier this year, according to Amtrak.

"It's an unacceptably high number, and it has weakened the trains' on-time performance," Schultz said. "We have been disappointed with the performance ... despite their huge public popularity. Clearly modifications are needed to improve the trains."

Schulz said the severity of the problem discovered yesterday left Amtrak no choice. Should the defective part, known as a "yaw damper," break off en route, it could fall onto the tracks and cause a derailment, or strike people or objects nearby.

"It is not an insignificant problem," he said.

Amtrak's president, David L. Gunn, and Bombardier's chief, William Spurr, met yesterday afternoon to discuss a "get-well plan," said Bombardier spokeswoman Carol Sharpe.

"We have a dedicated team of experts working with Amtrak," she said.

The breakdowns last month contributed to a 74 percent on-time performance for the Acela Express, the lowest in the Northeast Corridor, according to Amtrak.

Those who ride the train north of New York City are most affected by the suspension of the Acela Express because the train travels faster and provides the most time savings there. Acela Express trains make up 50 percent of all Amtrak service on that segment, compared with 25 percent for the entire Boston-to-Washington route.

But passengers along the southern portion felt the disruption as well. Linda M. Passaro, a vice president with Mont Blanc pens, chose to take the train from her home in New Jersey instead of flying into Baltimore for a business trip yesterday. The morning trip was trouble-free. "Everything was beautifully on time and perfectly executed," she said.

But when she returned to Penn Station to catch her 4:07 p.m. Metroliner home, the ticket agent told her that the train had been canceled and was being used to make up for Acela Express delays. The next train with an available seat would not depart until about 5:30 p.m., which would cause her to miss dinner with her family.

"This is the same as the airport delays, guys," she complained to the agents.

Garrick Bernstein, 24, had come to Baltimore for a one-day business meeting and was desperate to get back to New York. When told that he would have to wait 2 1/2 hours, he began to beg.

"Can I stand on the train? Can I sit at the table in the kitchen? No? You're killing me, you're absolutely killing me," he told the Amtrak attendant.

Amtrak officials scheduled departures at least hourly from Boston, New York and Washington, and said no train was delayed by more than 45 minutes. But heat restrictions further complicated service yesterday - for Amtrak and MARC commuter passengers - forcing the trains to travel at below-normal speeds.

The restrictions, common for freight trains, were put in place for passenger trains last month after the derailment of an Amtrak train in Kensington. Investigators suspect high temperatures might have weakened the rail and caused the derailment.

Amtrak said it discovered the problem with the Acela Express shock absorber in a routine inspection of a train in Boston on Monday. Officials immediately instructed Bombardier to inspect the four yaw dampers on each locomotive. By late Monday evening, those inspections revealed similar fractures in the shock absorbers of two other locomotives.

At that point, Gunn pulled all the Acela Express cars from service.

Customers who bought the higher-priced Acela Express tickets will be credited for the difference. Amtrak encourages passengers to check their departures at or by calling 800-USA-RAIL.

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