High-speed Acela returns

first run since shutdown

Disc-brake cracks halted Amtrak train in April

July 12, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Preparing for his trip to Baltimore yesterday morning, Scott Herman put on one of his better pinstripe suits, carefully knotted his tie and waited with low expectations on the train station platform in Newark, N.J.

He had booked a Metroliner ticket after Amtrak pulled its high-speed Acela Express trains months ago because of cracks in the brake system.

But instead of a ride on a Metroliner, Herman was surprised to see a sleek Acela roll to a stop in front of him.

"You forget how beautiful these things are," he said yesterday afternoon, waiting for his return train at Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station. "They're so comfortable, not as noisy -- and [have] great seats."

Herman's morning run was aboard one of the two Acela trains Amtrak restored to service yesterday -- the first since inspectors found small cracks in about 300 of the 20 trains' 1,440 brake discs in April.

None of the brakes failed, but in halting its Acelas, Amtrak left about 10,000 passengers scrambling for seats on slower trains.

Since then, the company has faced scrutiny and criticism from Congress, transportation officials and customers -- and lost about $1 million a week in revenue, Amtrak officials have said.

"We're very glad to begin rolling these trains back into service," William L. Crosbie, Amtrak's senior vice president for operations, said in a statement yesterday.

Some customers said they were glad as well, after riding for three months on the older and slower -- but cheaper -- regional trains.

"And to be honest, they have kind of a bad smell in the bathrooms," John Sabino, 43, a broker for Morgan Stanley, said of Metroliners as he waited near Herman. "I don't know how to describe it, just the smell of filthiness."

The Acela trains in service yesterday were fitted with new brake discs -- the type originally designed for the Acela in 1995, according to Montreal-based company Bombardier, which built Acela with Alstom S.A. of France.

In 1998, designer Knorr Brake Corp. replaced the original disc design with a different one because it would satisfy some of the requirements that train parts be partly manufactured in the United States.

Four Acela trains have been equipped with the new discs, but Amtrak said it will reserve two as backups. Bombardier said it hopes to fit the entire fleet with new brakes by September.

The two trains yesterday came with a letter on every seat from Amtrak President David L. Gunn, explaining the situation.

"The note was a nice touch," said Herman, 46. "It won me over; I'll be going back to the Acela every chance I get."

Others were not as enthusiastic.

A business psychologist often on the road, Ed Piccolino, 64, is the type of high-end business traveler Amtrak targeted when it launched the speedy, high-fare Acela service in 2000.

Waiting for a regional train at Penn Station yesterday, Piccolino, of Stamford, Conn., recalled his first trip on Acela several years ago.

"I was dazzled by it," he said. "The roomy seats, the bigger windows, the brighter lights, the smoother ride."

But over the years, as he learned about Acela's history, Piccolino said his admiration turned to skepticism.

The Acela project has had problems since its inception in the 1990s -- legal wrangling, service delays, malfunctioning parts. The day after the first Acela ran in December 2000, the train was pulled for electrical problems. In 2002, Amtrak was forced to suspend the Acela again because of cracks in wheel and shock-absorbing assemblies.

"Not just as a customer, but as a businessman, it just smacks of a mismanaged project from the get-go," Piccolino said.

But Sabino, an Amtrak regular from New York, was more forgiving -- praising the rail service over airline and highway alternatives. "You don't have traffic. You can work, use your cell phone, stretch your legs," he said.

"It's not great, but most of the time it's bearable," Iman Shabazz, 37, standing on the platform, said of Amtrak. A Baltimore designer, Shabazz said she rides Amtrak every week but had ridden Acela only four times.

"It's way too expensive for me, but I'm glad it's back," she said, noting the wide windows, plush seats and sleek design. "If you can afford it, that's the way to go."

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