Amtrak's express will remain on hiatus indefinitely while awaiting new brakes.

Frustrated travelers pine for Acela

April 20, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Standing on Platform E at Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, Anthony DiFuria stewed yesterday afternoon as he waited for his 4:47 train to New York -- an ordinary train rather than the high-speed Acela to which he had grown accustomed.

After two years of commuting on the Acela Express service, DiFuria said, Amtrak let him down by halting the luxury trains indefinitely on Friday because of brake troubles.

"They've had minor things before -- you know, late trains, canceled ones -- but this one really beats them all," he said.

Millimeter-size cracks found in the trains' disc brakes halted Acela service and left thousands of commuters on Amtrak's signature Washington-to-Boston corridor scrambling to rearrange schedules, exchange tickets or find alternative transportation.

Yesterday, it appeared that the problem would not be solved anytime soon.

The Canadian company that builds Acela trains revealed it had only 80 of the disc brakes in stock, making it impossible to immediately replace the 300 damaged brakes discovered on Amtrak's 20-train Acela fleet.

David Slack, a spokesman for Montreal-based Bombardier Inc., said yesterday he did not know how long it would take the company to supply Amtrak with enough brakes to put Acela back in service. The trains are built by Bombardier and Alstom SA of France.

Amtrak ran one Acela train from New York to Washington on Monday but canceled its scheduled return trip because the wheels did not match perfectly, officials said. Amtrak has added several slower regional trains to compensate for the lost Acela schedule.

Acela commuters waiting yesterday at Penn Station swapped horror stories from last week's rail disruption.

DiFuria, who commutes four days a week between Baltimore and Philadelphia, recalled desperation at Penn Station Friday night as Acela passengers tried to get tickets on the sold-out regional trains.

"The strategy was basically to pile in as much as you can and hope the door won't close on you," he said. "I was the last one in on one of the trains before the door slammed shut. But even then, it was standing room only for an hour and a half, elbow to elbow on the steel floor by the cabin door."

Others riders grumbled about the continuing inconvenience this week.

Nicole Risser of Towson, heading to New York for business, said she was forced to book a late-night return trip -- one that would arrive in Baltimore at 11 p.m.

"I'm a woman arriving alone late at night in Baltimore. I'm a little concerned about safety, you know?" she said.

But for some diehard rail fans, the loss of Acela Express has brought newfound appreciation for America's first high-speed train service.

Rising Sun residents Chris Meenan, 34, and John Kornak, 33, talked about the reclining seats and the laptop-friendly electrical outlets on Acela trains. Information technicians for University of Maryland Medical Center, they travel on Acela for business trips to Connecticut.

"It's like flying first class," said Meenan. "Sometimes we even fold down the table to hold mini-conferences on the train. It's so cool."

The high-speed trains are a lifesaver for Kim Parker, a Washington resident studying at the University of Baltimore. Parker, 32, works at the U.S. Treasury Department to put herself through law school. When crises arise keeping her late at her job, Acela is the only way she can get to her Baltimore classes on time.

Parker said she used to cringe every time she bought an Acela ticket -- costing her $26 more than the slower regional train, but at least sparing her the wrath of her professors.

"Honestly, the fast train saves my butt when I'm running late," she said. "I'm going to have to be extra punctual until they get all this fixed."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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