- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2000

A series of delays in the start of high-speed rail service has caused a public relations headache for Amtrak, worry among monitors of the railway's finances and friction between Amtrak and the companies building the new trains.

Nine months after service was to begin, the "Acela Express" trains still are being tested on stretches of the Northeast Corridor, connecting Boston, New York City and Washington.

The latest delay occurred last week when inspectors found problems with bolts on a bar that steadies train cars while moving.

"The failure of the Acela trains to be on line and running is putting a terrible stress on Amtrak," said Gil Carmichael, chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council, which is charged by Congress to oversee Amtrak's efforts to become financially self-sufficient by 2003. Failure to meet the goal could prompt Congress to liquidate the national railway.

A member of the reform council, Joseph Vranich, resigned this month and criticized Amtrak for choosing "unproven, unbuilt Acela equipment" over other high-speed train designs.

Even Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, Amtrak's chairman and indefatigable cheerleader, said last month he is "damn mad" the high-speed trains are delayed until at least September.

Amtrak defenders say Acela's problems are unremarkable and draw scrutiny only because the railway must make them public.

"If Boeing had to report every week on any flaw in its latest plane design, nobody would fly," said James RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative, which supports development of high-speed rail.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, a leading Amtrak advocate in Congress, said delays are disappointing but to be expected with new technology.

"Remember, these trains are not the run-of-the-mill things you get in the Lionel store," said Mr. Lautenberg, who has proposed spending $10 billion to develop other high-speed lines.

Acela trains will travel up to 150 mph, compared with a top speed of 125 mph now reached by other Amtrak trains. Acela trains are supposed to cut nearly an hour off the typical four-hour Boston-to-New York trip.

But the Wall Street Journal yesterday reported that nearly three in five Amtrak Acela Regional trains between New York and Boston failed to come in at their scheduled arrival time during tests, and more than two in five came in at least 10 minutes late.

The sleek silver-and-turquoise trains will offer more comfortable seats, audio and video entertainment, and improved food service.

Acela service was to begin last October. But premature wheel wear and problems with the tilting technology that helps the train negotiate curves delayed the start until this past spring.

Delivery was then delayed until July as technicians addressed sideways movement of the wheels at high speeds. The date was pushed back again when missing and broken bolts were found.

The consortium manufacturing the trains, Canada's Bombardier Transportation and France's Alston Ltd., now plans to deliver the first of the 20 Acela eight-car train sets by the end of summer.

Amtrak continues to insist it is on track to wean itself from government help by the deadline, but getting Acela running is crucial to that effort.

Amtrak says it was roughly $500 million short of self-sufficiency in 1999; high-speed service in the Northeast Corridor is projected to earn $180 million a year. Other steps to make up the shortfall include Amtrak's package delivery and a planned expansion of passenger routes.

Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead told Congress this past spring that Acela delays would cost Amtrak about $142 million in expected revenue this year, but that the railway can recoup much of that from the manufacturer. However, Mr. Mead also warned compensation "is no substitute for implementation."

Amtrak has opened discussions with the train's builders over penalties for delivery delays. Under the contract, Amtrak can seek up to $13,500 a day for each delayed train.

Bombardier spokesman Gilles Paget said penalties are "a point of discussion," though Amtrak officials say their focus for now is working with the consortium, not against it.

"Our effort together is singularly focused on getting these trains into service," said Amtrak spokesman Bill Schulz.

"One or two train sets aren't going to solve the [revenue] problem at all," said Mr. Carmichael, of the Amtrak Reform Council. "The important date is the date the whole 20 trains are running. When that day is, I don't know."

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