- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

Amtrak says it has resolved mechanical problems that plagued the early days of its Acela Express service and now hopes to use the high-speed trains as a selling point for another year of record ridership.

The passenger railroad is offering promotions to customers in hopes of reaching lofty goals of profitability promised but never achieved since Acela Express started service in December 2000.

Ridership throughout the national passenger railroad system set a record last year of 24 million passengers and continues to climb.

“If we continue with current trends, we should surpass 25 million in this current fiscal year,” said Cliff Black, Amtrak spokesman.

Nevertheless, Amtrak’s financial problems continue.

It never has made money in its 33-year history and is relying on a $1.23 billion subsidy. Amtrak seeks $1.8 billion from Congress next year, despite the fact the Bush administration has offered only half that much.

Acela Express was supposed to be Amtrak’s best hope for reaching financial self-sufficiency.

If ever there was a time Acela Express could be successful, it is now, Amtrak officials said.

“Now that they’ve become reliable, ridership is starting to go up,” Mr. Black said. “In the first four months of this fiscal year, Acela ridership is up 6.7 percent.”

Last year, the high-speed trains carried more than 2.4 million passengers, producing 22 percent of the railroad’s revenue.

They arrive about 15 minutes earlier on trips between Washington and New York compared with passengers on the slower Metroliner, which makes the trip in three hours.

Acela Express customers pay a minimum of $252 for the Washington-New York round trip, compared with $218 for Metroliner passengers.

Many of the early problems for Acela Express involved mechanical breakdowns.

They included bathroom doors that would not latch properly, computer and mechanical glitches that caused delays and cracks in the suspension system that temporarily stopped service on most of the high-speed fleet.

“The problems have been satisfactorily resolved,” Mr. Black said.

The problems also led to a nasty lawsuit between Amtrak and Acela Express manufacturer Bombardier Inc., based in Montreal.

Amtrak accused Bombardier of slow and sloppy work. Bombardier said Amtrak officials demanded so many design changes on trivial issues that it set back the production schedule.

“We had cost overruns,” said Helene Gagnon, Bombardier spokeswoman.

Bombardier also said Amtrak misrepresented the quality of its tracks, which led to equipment failures.

“One of the reasons we are claiming damages is that we think the infrastructure is not up to the level it should have been,” Miss Gagnon said. The tracks are “not meant for high speed.”

The parties still are trying to negotiate a settlement of Bombardier’s $200 million claim.

Amtrak officials predicted in December 2000 Acela Express would generate a $180 million profit when it was running at capacity with 20 train sets, the last of which was delivered last year. The train sets, which consist of locomotives and the rail cars they pull, cost $850 million when maintenance facilities are included.

Last year, the trains generated an operating profit of less than $70 million, which does not include capital expenses and depreciation. The capital expenses and depreciation are reimbursed through federal subsidies.

Bush administration officials refused to comment on whether they believe Acela Express is a success or failure until the Bombardier lawsuit is resolved.

“There are outstanding legal issues involving Acela,” said Steve Kulm, Federal Railroad Administration spokesman. “It’s probably not best to make public comments.”

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