- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Amtrak suspended its high-speed Acela Express service indefinitely yesterday after maintenance engineers found cracks in the shock systems of three trains.
The rail carrier used slower Acela Regional and Metroliner trains to maintain hourly departures from Boston, New York and Washington, and did not alter the schedules of any other trains traveling in the Northeast. Those passengers who bought Acela Express tickets were credited the fare difference.
During routine maintenance checks late Monday, Amtrak engineers looking over one locomotive found a crack in a train part known as the yaw-damper bracket, a shock absorber designed to reduce lateral motion. Amtrak ordered Bombardier Inc., the Montreal-based manufacturer of the trains, to inspect all brackets on the remaining 17 trains. The company found two more similar cracks late Monday night.
It was still not clear what caused the cracks.
"This is what we're looking into," said Bombardier spokeswoman Carol Sharpe.
The switch from Acela Express to Acela Regional and Metroliner trains added between 20 and 40 minutes to a trip from Union Station in the District to New York's Penn Station. It created confusion for some passengers, particularly those who wished to board the hourly trains, which at times were still labeled as Acela Express even though they were actually Metroliners.
"First, they told me these tickets were good, then they said they weren't," said one passenger as he waited in line for a 4 p.m. departure. "Nobody's giving us the straight story."
Amtrak was still accepting reservations for Acela Express trains on its Web site for as early as tomorrow morning. The site said Acela Express and Metroliner service was "sold out" for today. There was no note on the Web site telling customers that service was suspended on Acela Express trains.
Amtrak did not return repeated calls seeking comment. The rail service has said Acela Express is the key to decreasing its need for operating subsidies from the federal government. Congress gave the company $205 million last month. Amtrak lost $1.17 billion in 2001, and it has never had an operating profit in its 31-year history.
If more problems are found with the Acela Express trains and a lengthy suspension of service is needed, then Amtrak could face even more financial troubles, railroad groups said. But, they said, the railroad could rebound quickly if the problems turn out to be minor.
"If it's something that a week from now they have under control, it may be even less than a hiccup," said Scott Leonard, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a District-based passenger advocacy group.
Meanwhile, shares of Bombardier fell 61 cents to close at $5.78 on the Toronto Stock Exchange yesterday. They have fallen 45 percent this year.
Bombardier and French manufacturer Alstom, which also helped build the trains, have been blamed in part for problems with the trains, including freezing of brakes and bathroom doors that have trapped passengers.
Amtrak had an admittedly demanding schedule for delivery of the trains in 2000. Bombardier was several months late on the delivery and some analysts said a desire to make up for lost time led to design defects, a contention that Bombardier denies.
"Amtrak had a demanding schedule, but we have never, ever sacrificed quality," Miss Sharpe said.

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