Amtrak suspends high-speed train line

Washington-Boston service halted for days after cracks found in brakes

Latest setback for costly Acela project

April 16, 2005|By Paul Adams and Meredith Cohn | Paul Adams and Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

America's first high-speed train service suffered another setback yesterday when brake problems forced Amtrak to halt its Acela Express services between Washington, New York and Boston, leaving an estimated 10,000 passengers to hunt for seats on slower regional trains.

The decision came after routine inspections found cracks in about 300 of the trains' 1,440 brake discs. None of the brakes failed, but the trains, which account for about 20 percent of Amtrak's passenger load between the three cities, will be out of service at least until Wednesday, said William Crosbie, Amtrak's chief operating officer.

Acela service will likely return in phases as cars are fixed. But it could take months before the entire fleet of 20 trains returns, Crosbie said.

Amtrak officials said it is unlikely that any passengers will be stranded, because at least four additional regional trains were being rushed into service to handle the roughly 53,000 passengers who normally take the Acela each week.

"At this time, we are assessing the equipment availability to see how many trains we can make up," said Tracy Connell, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

Regardless, industry experts say the timing couldn't be worse for Amtrak. The indefinite shutdown of Acela comes days after the Bush administration sent Congress a plan to wean the railroad off federal subsidies and turn much of its operation over to states - a move passenger rail critics have argued is overdue in light of Amtrak's 35-year history of operating losses. The current budget includes $1.2 billion in operating subsidies for passenger rail. Rail advocates argue that the Bush proposal would, for example, kill less-traveled routes outside the Northeast corridor.

Acela's latest problems are fuel for congressional critics of Amtrak, which gambled $1.2 billion on high-speed rail in hopes of erasing operating losses and becoming more competitive for business travelers with the Washington-New York-Boston airline shuttles. The service was launched in December 2000.

Though loved by passengers seeking more luxury, such as conference tables in rail cars and better dining, the service has been troubled from the beginning. In August 2002, all Acelas were pulled out of service for almost a week after cracks were found in shock-absorbing assemblies on several trains.

Passengers occasionally grumble that the Acela, which costs nearly twice as much to ride as Amtrak's Metroliner service, doesn't deliver on the promised time savings. Design flaws and track problems prevent the trains from reaching their 150 mph top speed on most of the route.

"It's always been delayed," said Erik Gronning, who works for Sotheby's auction house in Manhattan and was planning to take the Acela from Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station to New York yesterday. "You pay all that extra money to take it, and it gets in at the same time as the Metroliner. In the best circumstances, it saves you 15 minutes, so it's really not worth it."

Gronning and other business travelers in Baltimore found out about the cancellations yesterday when they arrived at Penn Station and saw a note on the big board. Acela makes 15 trips a day between Washington and New York and 11 between New York and Boston. Baltimore-area travelers can pick up the Acela at Penn Station and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Amtrak has promised refunds to passengers who canceled their travel plans and will make up the difference in cost for those who decided to take a Metroliner train instead.

That suited Connecticut businessman Brad Mahaney just fine.

"I'll get on the Metroliner and lose a couple of minutes, but it's not a huge disappointment," said Mahaney, as he passed the time at Penn Station by working on his laptop computer. Mahaney said he only takes the Acela if it is leaving at a more convenient time than the regular Metroliner service.

Despite its higher price and popularity, industry consultants say, the Acela has never been a financial success, in part because of a bungled procurement process and feuds over its design with the train's manufacturer, Bombardier Inc.

The Acela was an attempt to fuse European high-speed train designs with a U.S. rail infrastructure that rail experts say was not up to the challenge. Bombardier employed a unique tilting mechanism to compensate for the sharp curves found in tracks along the Northeast corridor. But the train cars were built inches too wide, preventing the tilting mechanism from working properly and slowing travel times.

Other glitches resulted in a half-dozen or more of the 20 trains being out of service at any given time during Acela's early months of operation. Amtrak and Bombardier fought in court over who was responsible for the trains' woes until an out-of-court settlement last year.

Railroad consultants say Amtrak's gamble on building a new high-speed rail system from scratch was too ambitious and technologically flawed.

"They gambled a lot on that throw instead of taking more cautious steps forward," said Walter Schuchmann, an industry consultant with R.L. Banks and Associates in Washington. "You can't argue with the goal, which was to radically improve the quality and also the speed, but the program wasn't carried out very well."

Still, passenger rail advocates don't see Acela's latest difficulties hurting ridership.

"It's had some problems, but I think the main thing to focus on is that the service is very well received by the passengers," said David Johnson, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

"It's America's first high-speed service, so there are a few kinks to work out," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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