High-speed trains sidetracked until summer

Amtrak blames shortage of parts for brake repairs

April 21, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express trains, sidelined by cracks in the brake system, will not be back on the tracks until sometime this summer, and it is unclear when the service can be fully restored, officials said yesterday.

In a news conference at Union Station, Amtrak President David Gunn sought to reassure passengers that the railroad will quickly fill in service gaps with conventional Metroliner and regional service.

But a shortage of replacement parts from the train's manufacturer, along with uncertainty over how quickly more can be manufactured and delivered, make it unclear when repairs can be completed, he said.

"The trains will come back gradually; they will not appear at once," said Gunn.

Amtrak pulled all 20 of its Acela Express trains out of service last Friday after routine inspections found small cracks in about 300 of the trains' 1,440 brake discs. None of the brakes failed, but the disruption in service left about 10,000 passengers scrambling for seats on the slower regional trains.

On Monday, Amtrak put one Acela train back in service for a New York-to-Washington run, but the train did not make a scheduled trip from Washington to Boston because the wheels did not match perfectly.

The trains account for about 20 percent of Amtrak's passenger load between Washington, New York and Boston.

Acela's manufacturer, a consortium of Montreal-based Bombardier and France's Alstom S.A., has only 80 replacement brake parts in stock because neither Amtrak nor the consortium expected them to wear out as quickly as they did, according to officials.

The expected life of the brake discs is about 1 million miles, and the Acela trains have traveled about half that, they said.

"No one expected the spokes on the disk to get cracks at that point," said Helene Gagnon, a spokeswoman for Bombardier. Amtrak officials said they and the manufacturers are still trying to determine what caused the cracks.

The railroad will compensate for its suspension of the Acela service by rushing Metroliner and other trains into the Northeast corridor, said William Crosbie, Amtrak's senior vice president for operations.

He said that by Monday, the railroad will have Metroliners covering most of the weekday, daytime Acela slots between Washington and New York.

By May 2, he said, Metroliners will cover all 13 hourly Acela departures.

Relief will come slower in the Boston-New York part of Acela's route. Crosbie said that by May 2, four Metroliners would replace some of the former Acela trains.

Crosbie said it is difficult to say exactly when the Acela trains will return because Amtrak first has to inspect each disc, reach an agreement with the manufacturer on how long each can be expected to last and to ensure a supply of replacement discs.

Gagnon said the parts fall under a contractual warranty that the manufacturer will honor. But she said "what it means in terms of who will pay what share" for any repairs has not been decided, contending that the parts were made according to Amtrak's specifications.

Amtrak and the consortium have a history of disputes, with each suing the other before reaching an out-of-court settlement last year.

Nevertheless, said Gagnon, "everyone is cooperating right now to try to resolve this situation."

During the news conference, Gunn sought to distance today's Amtrak from the railroad that made a series of questionable decisions in the 1990s that have contributed to a string of problems with Acela.

But both critics and defenders say the Acela problems come at a difficult time for Amtrak, which is confronting an effort by the Bush administration to cut off its federal subsidy and revoke its status as the nation's sole provider of intercity rail services.

"The Acela controversy has sort of brought things to a head," said James RePass, president of the pro-Amtrak National Corridors Initiative. "People are already pointing the finger at Amtrak and saying they can't run anything, and it has nothing to do with that."

But critics contend that Acela's problems are one more reason to end Amtrak's more than $1 billion annual subsidy and expose the railroad to competition.

"It's still another example of Amtrak being a colossal failure in meeting its objectives," said Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak press spokesman turned critic of the railroad.

The high-speed train program, which went through several name changes before making its debut as Acela in 2000, has been bedeviled by problems and delays since it was conceived in the 1990s as a scheme to make Amtrak profitable.

After testing some high-speed trains from Sweden and Germany in the early 1990s, Amtrak officials decided to design their own version and to have the equipment built by the consortium - a $1.1 billion deal that was largely driven by financing the cash-strapped railroad received from a bank set up to promote Canada's exports.

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