- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

Amtrak’s high-speed train service came to a screeching halt yesterday. Again.

Amtrak officials canceled Acela Express service between the District, New York and Boston at least until Wednesday after cracks were found in nearly 20 percent of the trains’ brakes.

Amtrak could resume partial service after Wednesday, but full service isn’t likely to resume for months, Amtrak Chief Operating Officer Bill Crosbie said.

?It could be on the order of months until the entire fleet? is back in service, he said. ?It would be a little too early to say for sure, but I believe we’re probably looking at two [months].?

Amtrak added trains to accommodate the estimated 10,000 passengers who ride Acela on a typical Friday. They also are scrambling to add more trains to next week’s schedule.

While passengers found seats on other trains, including the Metroliner and Amtrak’s regional trains, the inconvenience was evident. People stood in long lines at Union Station yesterday.

?It’s been a tough day, and this is just adding to it. It’s just a little aggravating,? said Marcie Cohen, who lives in the District and was traveling to New York for the weekend.

She got a seat on a regional train, but she left 90 minutes later than planned.

Acela’s newest mechanical glitch was discovered Thursday, when an inspector with the Federal Railroad Administration found cracks in disc brake rotors on an Acela car during a routine check.

It is not clear what caused the cast steel rotors to crack, but a full inspection found tiny fissures on 300 of 1,440 rotors.

“They do vary in size. We’re dealing with millimeters,” Mr. Crosbie said.

There is at least one damaged rotor on each of 120 Acela cars.

Damage to rotors did not cause brake failure on any trains, but Amtrak suspended its high-speed rail service as a precaution.

Mr. Crosbie said it will take Amtrak officials at least until Wednesday to determine how to resolve the problem and how to resume service.

All the broken rotors must be replaced, but it is not clear how quickly Amtrak can get replacements. Two companies, Knorr Brake Corp., based in Westminster, Md., and Webtec Corp., made the rotors and will have to provide the replacements.

Amtrak doesn’t know how much it will cost to replace them, or whether the two companies will pay for the replacements. Amtrak also could seek money to pay for the new rotors from the primary contractor that made the trains, Bombardier Inc.

Mothballing Acela could cost Amtrak dearly. Acela generated $295 million in revenue in fiscal 2004.

Acela, which runs along the busy northeast corridor, is among the most popular services provided by cash-strapped Amtrak.

Amtrak has 20 Acela train sets — each with six cars — and it typically operates 15 weekday round trips between New York and Washington and 11 weekday round trips between New York and Boston.

More than 2.5 million passengers rode on Acela in fiscal year 2004. They pay higher prices for a slightly quicker trip and more comfortable ride that allows them to work while they travel. A round-trip business class ticket for Acela costs about $157, and the train makes the trip to New York’s Penn Station in 2 hours 45 minutes. The same trip on the Metroliner costs $109 and takes 3 hours.

Structural damage to the Acela’s brakes further calls into question the new train’s reliability. Mechanical problems in 2002 also led Amtrak officials to suspend service.

“They have had mechanical challenges,” said David Johnson, assistant director of the nonprofit National Association of Railroad Passengers, a group in the District that promotes rail service.

The high-speed trains, which can travel up to 150 miles per hour, began operating about a year late due to mechanical problems. They finally began service on Dec. 11, 2000.

Nearly three years ago Amtrak officials suspended service for about a week when cracks were found in shock-absorbing metal components that help control the lateral movement of the trains.

“But all the problems have been corrected and the trains have returned to service,” Mr. Johnson said.

Suspension of the high-speed service comes in the middle of another debate over Amtrak’s funding and its future. The Bush administration has proposed ending subsidies for Amtrak in fiscal year 2006.

Amtrak Chief Executive Officer David Gunn said problems with Acela’s brakes are unlikely to affect the 34-year-old passenger rail service’s attempt to get federal funding.

“I don’t think it will be a factor,” he said. “I think we have much bigger issues in the funding of Amtrak.”

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