Thursday, April 21, 2005

Amtrak’s damaged Acela high-speed train won’t operate again before summer, officials for the passenger rail service said yesterday.

Efforts to get the Acela back on track are hampered by a lack of replacement parts to correct brake problems.

Amtrak stopped the trains Friday after investigators with the Federal Railroad Administration discovered cracks in 300 of the 1,440 disc brake rotors on the trains.

But Bombardier Inc., the Montreal company that built Acela and has a contract to maintain it, has access to fewer than 70 rotors, Amtrak Senior Vice President of Operations William Crosbie said yesterday at Union Station in Washington.

Each train — a set of six cars — requires 72 rotors.

Bombardier spokesman David Slack said yesterday the company is working with suppliers to have new rotors made, but he doesn’t know how quickly the components can be delivered to Amtrak.

Mr. Crosbie said no companies are making the rotors now.

Difficulty finding replacement parts makes it likely Acela will have a long layoff. When service does resume, Amtrak expects to introduce the Acela trains gradually.

“They will not come back all at once,” Mr. Crosbie said.

Amtrak officials said Acela won’t return to service until the train’s manufacturers can ensure a steady supply of new rotors and can come up with an inspection procedure to monitor the components.

“The trains are under warranty, and it is the responsibility of the manufacturer consortium to come up with a plan for service restoration,” Mr. Crosbie said.

Bombardier’s warranty on the train lasts until October 2006.

The manufacturer also must ensure that the brake discs meet their expected life cycle before Amtrak resumes Acela service.

The rotors are supposed to last five years or 1 million miles, but neither threshold has been reached, Amtrak Chief Executive Officer David Gunn said.

The rotors have been on the trains for about 500,000 miles, he said. The trains have been in operation less than five years, traveling along the Northeast Corridor since December 2000.

Bombardier “thought we’d get 1 million miles out of them,” Mr. Gunn said.

He said it still is not clear what caused millimeter-sized cracks in the rotors.

“For the long term, we have to understand what’s happening with these rotors. We may have to design a new one,” Mr. Slack said.

Amtrak generates about $300 million in revenue from Acela annually. The high-speed train makes up about one-fifth of Amtrak’s service along the Northeast Corridor, carrying an average of 9,000 riders on weekdays.

To make up for the absence of Acela, Amtrak officials are increasing service along the Northeast Corridor with the Metroliner.

Starting May 2, Metroliner will operate 14 of the 15 Acela round-trips between Washington and New York. Acela’s New York-to-Boston route will be operated by four Metroliner trains and seven regional trains.

Mr. Gunn said that adding trains to the Northeast Corridor to replace Acela service could prevent the passenger rail service from losing customers and losing money.

“I think we have a service pattern to capture the lion’s share of that [$300 million]. But I’m hesitant to say how successful it’s going to be,” he said.

Nearly three years ago, Amtrak officials suspended service for about a week when cracks were found in shock-absorbing metal components that help control the lateral movement of the trains.

The current suspension comes in the middle of another debate over Amtrak’s funding and its future. The Bush administration is urging Congress to eliminate Amtrak’s operating subsidy and privatize it.

A Senate subcommittee planned to debate the proposal today. The current budget gives Amtrak about $1.2 billion in operating subsidies and capital investment funds.

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