- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Amtrak was warned by the manufacturer of its troubled high-speed Acela Express trains about potential "defects" in the undercarriages but forced early delivery.
Court documents in a lawsuit by Bombardier Corp. against Amtrak say trains were delivered before the design was certified as safe.
Bombardier, based in Montreal, said it gave its warning of a "trainset truck defect" in a letter dated Aug. 29, 2000. A trainset refers to locomotives and the rail cars they pull. Trucks are the wheel assemblies on the undersides of rail cars and locomotives.
Amtrak yesterday denied Bombardier's accusations.
"At no time did Bombardier ever raise issues relating to the safe operation of the trainsets," said Amtrak spokesman Bill Schulz. "If it had, neither Amtrak nor [the Federal Railroad Administration] would have permitted the trainsets to be operated.
"Amtrak was not aware of the specific defect," he said, referring to cracks in the suspension systems.
Two months ago, an Amtrak mechanic discovered cracks in the undercarriage suspension system of an Acela Express locomotive when a bracket dislodged during routine maintenance in Boston. Additional inspections turned up cracks in other Acela Express trains, which travel at speeds up to 150 mph along the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak was forced to interrupt the popular service and lost millions of dollars in ticket revenue.
Amtrak found that the suspension assembly brackets appeared to be too weak to withstand the side-to-side movement of the locomotives.
Bombardier delivered the first Acela Express trainset on Oct. 18, 2000. Regular service along the Northeast Corridor started in December 2000.
Amtrak owns 18 Acela Express trainsets, 15 of which normally operate 50 daily departures. Three are kept in reserve. Because of the suspension problems, the operation is down to 12 trains making 40 daily departures.
Bombardier in November filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking compensation from Amtrak for cost overruns resulting from repeated design changes and tests ordered by the national passenger railroad.
On Aug. 18, 2000, Amtrak submitted a "claim," or demand, that the trains in the $800 million contract be delivered. They already were more than a year late.
Bombardier responded by saying it was reluctant to deliver the trains before all of Amtrak's requested design changes were complete.
"What Amtrak proposes is nothing short of a unilateral rewriting of the contract that would permit Amtrak to force the delivery of equipment which Amtrak itself asserts is defective in major respects," wrote Germain Lafontaine, director of program management for the Bombardier Transportation-Alstom consortium that built the trains.
Richard Sarles, Amtrak's vice president for high-speed rail, knew disagreements involving design of the undercarriage were unresolved but submitted the claim anyway, Mr. Lafontaine said in his letter. Mr. Sarles also knew that the unresolved design issues "could require operation of the trainsets at reduced speeds." In addition, "these defects would allegedly increase the trainset's trip time and require post-delivery repairs by the contractor or other commercial resolution."
Bombardier spokeswoman Carol Sharpe repeated the company's position that any problems resulted from Amtrak's design changes.
"What we said was that there were certain technical issues with which we disagreed," she said. "They were imposing certain designs on us and we would disagree. We can't discuss the specifics."
After Bombardier filed suit, Amtrak issued a statement blaming the manufacturer for delays and cost overruns.
"After five years of delays, performance failures and self-inflicted financial losses, it is no shock that Bombardier is now attempting to shift the blame for the consortium's mismanagement of the high-speed trainset contract to Amtrak," said an Amtrak statement dated Nov. 8, 2001.
Among Amtrak's complaints against Bombardier were "speed restrictions, because the trainsets do not meet contract specifications when operated on track that complies fully with all FRA requirements."
Amtrak appeared to be aware of the undercarriage problems before delivery of the trainsets when it told Bombardier in an Aug. 14, 2000, letter that it was suspending payment for failure to meet design specifications.
Payments in the contract were due as the Bombardier-Alstom consortium progressed in intervals toward completing the contract, referred to in letters as "milestones."
"Milestone payment amounts associated with trainset truck performance and the related qualification tests are not yet due because these milestones have never been achieved," John Bell, Amtrak's program director for high-speed trainsets, said in the letter.
Amtrak withheld $51 million in payments because of the equipment problems. Bombardier is seeking $200 million in its lawsuit as compensation for the cost overruns incurred from Amtrak's design changes.
Meanwhile, Bombardier says it has engineered a permanent repair for the suspension systems, a sturdier bracket that reduces side-to-side motion.
The cracked support brackets were rewelded as a temporary fix in August to get the trains back into service.
Amtrak said Bombardier's new bracket is undergoing field testing and must be approved by the FRA before it can be certified as a permanent repair.
Acela Express, one of Amtrak's most popular and profitable business ventures, was a linchpin in the railroad's failed efforts to free itself from federal subsidies. Congress is considering restructuring Amtrak because of its persistent inability to operate profitably.

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