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Bad brakes force Amtrak to cancel Acela
Updated: 2005-04-16 11:10

The Acela Express, Amtrak's much-ballyhooed hope for high-speed train travel, was shut down indefinitely Friday because of brake problems, leaving thousands of travelers scrambling for other transportation.

The beleaguered rail service pressed slower trains into use along the Northeast corridor between Washington, New York and Boston.

All Acela service will be suspended at least through next Wednesday and most is likely to be shut down for much longer because of newly discovered cracks in disc brakes, said Amtrak chief operating officer Bill Crosbie.

"We're very early into this," said Crosbie, estimating it was likely to take more than two months to do all the repairs, depending on the availability of replacement parts.

Millimeter-sized cracks were found in 300 of the Acela fleet's 1,440 disc brake rotors.

Amtrak said the extra trains would not be able to compensate for all the lost Acela seats. People with reservations who cannot get a ticket on another train — or don't want one — are entitled to a refund, the company said.

Amtrak normally runs 15 Acela weekday roundtrips between New York and Washington and 11 between New York and Boston. Acela accounts for about 20 percent of Amtrak's Boston-New York-Washington weekday service, some 9,000 passengers. On Friday's that's usually about 10,000.

The cracked brakes come at a bad time for Amtrak. A Senate committee will debate next week whether to end the rail service's federal subsidy — as the Bush administration has recommended — and radically reshape train travel in the United States.

"We're always under political pressure," said Amtrak CEO David Gunn. "I don't think that this will be a factor per se."

When Acela service was launched Dec. 11, 2000, the trains were billed as the faster, brighter future of Amtrak. Running only in the Northeast corridor, the trains can reach speeds of 150 mph and feature amenities such as conference tables in passenger cars, pub-style cafe cars with expanded menus and three audio music channels with headphone outlets at each seat.

The manufacturer, Bombardier Inc., had no immediate explanation for the cracks found on the steel spokes of disc brakes on most coaches.

"We want to get them up and running as soon as possible, but until we really understand the issue fully that's going to be an open question," said Bombardier spokesman David Slack.

The cracks were discovered during routine inspections, and no brake failures or other safety problems had occurred, Amtrak said.

That was little comfort to stranded business travelers and those who had made weekend plans.

Standing in line at New York's Penn Station, accountant Linda Priebe feared she wouldn't make it home to Baltimore Friday.

"If they can't give me a ticket to go in a couple of hours, I'm going back to the hotel," she said.

Art curator Stanley Babcock wasn't ready to give up.

He said he was ready to ride sitting on the floor. "Otherwise all my hotel and restaurant plans will be ruined."

Most other Amtrak service was scheduled to operate normally, but the company added four more regional trains Friday to try to handle the displaced passengers.

"It's going to be a challenge for us because we have limited additional equipment," said spokesman Cliff Black.

Lawmakers already upset over the Bush administration's plans to end most funding for Amtrak argued the incident shows Amtrak needs more help, not less.

"When Amtrak is terribly underfunded and has to operate on a shoestring budget, these kinds of things will keep happening, which will really disrupt people's lives and our economy," said Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y.

The White House seeks to radically reshape what Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta had called "a dying railroad company."

A day before the Acela cancellation, the administration sent Congress a plan to reshape Amtrak as a private operator focused on running trains, not maintaining tracks or stations.

President Bush proposed in his 2006 budget eliminating Amtrak's operating subsidy. If the railroad ceased operating, the administration has offered to set aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor. The current budget gives Amtrak some $1.2 billion in operating subsidies and capital investment.

Acela Express service also was halted in August 2002 after inspectors discovered cracks on a bracket holding a shock-absorbing assembly to one Acela Express locomotive. Additional cracks were later found around the assemblies of other locomotives.

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