- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Amtrak’s inspector general said a subcontractor knew about cracks on Acela’s disc brake rotors up to three years ago, but it still is not clear how the information was handled.

ORX Railway Corp., based in Altoona, Pa., told another subcontractor about the fissures, Amtrak Inspector General Fred Weiderhold Jr. told the House Transportation and Infrastructure railroads subcommittee yesterday.

But Amtrak did not learn of the damage until April 14.

Amtrak took the high-speed train out of service April 15, one day after Federal Railroad Administration safety specialist Rich Thomas detected brake damage. Inspectors found 317 cracks on 250 of Acela’s 1,440 disc brake rotors.

Sidelining Acela has caused the number of Amtrak passengers to fall 5 to 10 percent and cost Amtrak about $1 million a week, William Crosbie, Amtrak’s senior vice president of operations, told the subcommittee.

The shutdown could cost the national passenger railroad $32 million and “may exhaust our fiscal year cash balance,” he said.

Employees at ORX saw the cracks while performing routine maintenance on Acela’s wheel assemblies and passed the information on to Knorr Brake Corp., another Acela subcontractor, Mr. Weiderhold said.

Officials at Knorr, charged with assembling Acela’s brakes, have not revealed what they did with the information, and the inspector general said he still is trying to establish who knew about the cracked disc brake rotors and whether the information was mishandled.

“Sometimes people make bad decisions with good intentions, and we need to know if that happened here,” Mr. Weiderhold said.

The investigation into the cause of the cracked rotors is not complete.

It also is not clear what steps Amtrak will take to get Acela back in service.

Knorr, with Bombardier Inc. of Montreal and Alstom SA of France, the companies that made and maintain Acela, continue to examine the brake assemblies.

William Spurr, president of Bombardier’s North American operation, said the companies could complete the investigation by the end of the month.

He was adamant that poor maintenance did not cause the rotors to crack.

But Mr. Weiderhold said maintenance by the companies had some flaws, including a service bulletin that had just a single line explaining to mechanics how to look for cracks in the rotors.

A test run of Acela, likely to occur over the weekend, will help Amtrak determine whether it can continue using the same rotors or will have to rely on a new design, Mr. Crosbie said.

Mr. Spurr said Bombardier and Alstom could begin delivering rotors to Amtrak in June, and Mr. Crosbie said Acela service could resume by July.

Mr. Weiderhold said Amtrak narrowly averted a serious problem. A small number of the disc brake rotors had cracks surrounding four or five of the six spokes on each rotor.

“We were dangerously close to a severe problem,” he said. “All of us got very lucky that this was found when it was.”

Acela’s mechanical problems come as Amtrak is seeking funding for fiscal 2006. President Bush has proposed cutting the railroad’s funding unless it makes sweeping changes. Amtrak received a $1.2 billion subsidy for fiscal 2005 and has asked for $1.82 billion for fiscal 2006.

Supporters say the crisis is evidence that the railroad needs greater funding, while critics say its problems extend far beyond Acela’s brakes.

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