- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001


The fast train that is critical to Amtrak's future is off to a slow start.
In service eight months, Acela Express is falling short of projections in riders and revenue. Reimbursement requests from dissatisfied customers are three times higher than Amtrak's goal. The manufacturer has delivered only 11 of 20 trains.
Also, a nonstop Washington-to-New York service Amtrak's silver bullet in its race with air shuttles has been suspended because of low ridership.
Amtrak officials say they have had to deal with various challenges, including the slowing economy, aging electrical wiring even rock slides along a stretch of track in Connecticut.
"We think the service is performing extremely well," said Amtrak spokeswoman Cecilia Cummings. "We concede that ridership fell below our forecast by about 6 percent, and revenues by about 3 percent. But when you look at the drop in business travel in general, we're claiming victory."
Amtrak says Acela Express, which travels between Washington and Boston and reaches a top speed of 150 mph, carried its 250,000th passenger on July 29. The railway has projected that once all trains are in service, Acela Express will post annual revenues of $300 million and net $180 million.
But Tom Till, executive director of the Amtrak Reform Council, said the train's performance thus far raises doubts about that projection.
Income from Acela Express is crucial to Amtrak's survival. The national passenger railroad has less than 16 months to meet a 1997 congressional order to end its 30-year reliance on federal operating subsidies. Otherwise, Congress could liquidate the railway.
Rail advocates hope a successful Acela Express will fuel a national movement for high-speed trains, but so far Acela has failed to meet expectations:
* A daily nonstop train connecting Washington and New York in two hours, 28 minutes did not prove popular and began making multiple stops en route. A promised Boston-New York nonstop has not materialized. Making more stops "gives us an opportunity to serve more markets and make more revenue," said Amtrak spokeswoman Karen Dunn. The future of nonstop service is undecided.
* Amtrak, which scrutinizes each Acela Express train before accepting delivery, sometimes demanding fixes by the makers, continues to push back the date it expects all 20 in service. The latest estimate is sometime this winter. Nine trains are operating, with two others as backups.
"We are being very careful not to rush the trains into operation because of market or political considerations," Ms. Cummings said. The builders are Canada's Bombardier Transportation and France's Alstom Ltd.
Amtrak's year-old service guarantee program, which offers dissatisfied riders coupons toward future travel, has a goal of one request per thousand riders. Through July, Amtrak had issued nearly three times that many for Acela Express 2.98 coupons per thousand riders. Amtrak's rate systemwide is 2.82 per thousand.
Equipment and weather problems have hurt Acela Express. A lightning strike knocked out signals one day in July; wires sagging in the heat forced speed restrictions on a few August days. Cen-
tury-old overhead wires hold Acela Express to 75 mph along track owned by Metro-North Railroad in New York and Connecticut.
A review of 28 Acela Express trains last Wednesday found 10 reached their ultimate destinations late, defined as more than 15 minutes behind schedule.
Overall, Amtrak says 82 percent of the trains between New York and Boston, and 90 percent of those connecting Washington and New York, have reached their destinations on time. By comparison, the New York-Boston and New York-Washington air shuttles were on time 83 percent to 86 percent from December through May.
The trains offer riders more amenities than traditional rail service, such as conference facilities and pub-style cafe cars.
"I'm a fan," said John R. Buck, a principal in TenX Capital Partners who rides the train regularly between Philadelphia and New York City. "It gets me into Manhattan comfortably and reliably, and I typically meet executives with whom I have interesting discussions. I enjoy the smooth ride."

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