• Acela Woes

  • General discussion of passenger rail systems not otherwise covered in the specific forums in this category, including high speed rail.
General discussion of passenger rail systems not otherwise covered in the specific forums in this category, including high speed rail.

Moderators: mtuandrew, gprimr1

  by Champlain Division
Courtesy AOL News

Updated: 12:04 PM EDT
Acela, Built to Be a Savior, Bedevils Amtrak at Every Turn

By JAMES DAO, The New York Times

WASHINGTON - It was called the American Flyer, and its goals were ambitious: to speed train travel between Northeastern cities, steal customers from air shuttles, provide the model for a nationwide fast rail system and help its deficit-prone parent, Amtrak, earn a profit.

Amtrak took two years to select the draperies for the Acela's windows.
Graphics: A Corridor's Limits | History of the Acela Express

"These trains will enable Amtrak to carry its customers into the 21st century aboard 21st-century trains," said Thomas M. Downs, Amtrak's president, at a 1996 ceremony announcing a $611 million contract for the new trains.

Today that train is called the Acela, and instead of being Amtrak's savior, it has become a frustrating burden. On Wednesday, the company announced plans to sideline all 20 Acelas until summer to replace cracked brakes. It was the third major disruption of the high-speed service since it came on line in 2001.

The tale of the Acela is in many ways the story of Amtrak itself, where political pressures, tight budgets, contested regulations and design changes turned a high-speed train into something slower, more expensive and less reliable than what Amtrak had promised.

A reconstruction of Acela's history involving dozens of interviews and a review of court documents and other records shows that Amtrak was under intense pressure to deliver its new train as quickly as possible. And that rush to do something bigger and more complicated than the railroad had ever done led to a series of missteps that many experts believe contributed to the problems that have plagued the Acela to this day.

"There is an old saying in the acquisition world: you want it bad, you get it bad," said Tom Till, who led the Amtrak Reform Council, a group created by Congress to study the railroad's problems. "That's exactly what happened with Acela."

Before the first train was built, the Federal Railroad Administration required it to meet crash safety standards that senior Amtrak officials considered too strict. That forced the manufacturers, Bombardier Inc. of Canada and GEC Alstom of France, to make the trains twice as heavy as European models. Workers dubbed the trains "le cochon" - the pig.

Some experts have speculated that the added weight contributed to a series of problems, including the latest one, with Acela's wheels, brakes and shock-absorbing assemblies. Federal regulators are still investigating the cause of those problems.

During construction, Amtrak also discovered that the coaches were four inches too wide to use their full tilting mechanisms, which allowed the trains to speed around curves. As a result, trip times were slower.

Once the first trains were delivered, Amtrak - which had counted on the Acela to wean it off federal subsidies - pushed the trains into service without extensive testing.

"The company at that time, as it always is, was under intense pressure to produce results and revenue," said George Warrington, Amtrak's president from 1998 to 2002 and now executive director of New Jersey Transit.

All told, Amtrak ordered 9,000 engineering changes that increased costs, delayed production - just selecting draperies for the windows took two years - and added thousands of pounds of weight, the French-Canadian consortium said in a lawsuit filed in 2001. Amtrak argued that the manufacturers produced shoddy equipment and an outdated interior design, all behind schedule. The litigation was settled out of court in 2004.

The design problems, breakdowns, production delays and litigation have caused some rail experts to question why Amtrak selected a bid that involved an essentially new design.

One reason, current and former Amtrak officials say, was that the ideal off-the-shelf train did not exist. But another reason was money: the French-Canadian consortium offered the lowest bid and best financing deal, one heavily subsidized by the Canadian government. And cutting costs was paramount to Amtrak.

"They didn't have the cash," said Amtrak's president, David Gunn, who took office after the contract was negotiated and the trains had begun running. "There wouldn't be anything if they hadn't done it this way."

Despite its many problems, Acela remains Amtrak's most successful service. Until last week, it was generating about $300 million a year, enough to cover its operating costs. Ridership had been increasing, and surveys showed passengers liked its quiet coaches and plush amenities.

But even Mr. Gunn has said openly that the train was poorly conceived and badly built, and he has vowed never to buy another one.

"If you're buying equipment, you want evolutionary change, not revolutionary change," he said this week. "For us, this was revolutionary."

With Amtrak running annual deficits of over $1 billion, the Bush administration has called for ending federal subsidies and breaking the company up through bankruptcy. Some Amtrak supporters in Congress worry that their efforts to maintain federal support for the railroad has been weakened by the Acela's continuing problems.

"For those of us who care about Amtrak, the Acela mess couldn't come at a worse time," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. "It makes our job harder to fight for it."

Search for a Fast Train

A high-speed rail system had long been the dream of Amtrak officials. W. Graham Claytor Jr., Amtrak's president from 1982 to 1993, envisioned a system of sleek trains that would be tested on the corridor between Boston and Washington, adapted to the Midwest and the South, and eventually run down the spine of the California coast.

Inspired by the successes of Japan's bullet train and high-speed networks across France, Germany and Spain, Congress also became involved. In 1976, and again in 1992, it authorized billions of dollars to improve the railbeds and electrical systems along the Northeast Corridor. And it set a goal that Amtrak must provide Boston-to-New York service in under three hours.

It was more than an arbitrary benchmark. Marketing experts said that travelers would consistently choose to fly, even with the added costs and inconveniences of traveling to airports and waiting for flights, over train rides lasting longer than three hours. And bankers demanded that Amtrak reduce its train times to receive financing.

"Literally," said Joseph Vranich, the author of a book about Amtrak, "minutes matter."

To reach that goal, Amtrak repaired bridges, replaced wooden ties with concrete ones and electrified the track from New Haven to Boston. But it did not have the billions of dollars required for changes that would allow trains to travel over 150 miles an hour consistently: constructing straighter tracks and replacing aging overhead electric lines.

Instead, they focused on acquiring a new train to replace Amtrak's aging fleet of Metroliners, which were built in the 1960's.

In 1992, Amtrak began testing two European trains between Washington and New York: the Intercity Express, or ICE train, from Germany and the X2000 from Sweden. Some Amtrak officials thought the X2000 was well suited for the Northeast Corridor because of a tilting mechanism that reduced centrifugal force on passengers when the train sped around curves. The line between Boston and New York is among the most winding in the country.

But the Swedish company decided not to bid on the contract because it did not want to make the changes required by federal regulators to adapt its lightweight European train to America, said a former senior Amtrak official who asked not to be identified because he has taken another job in the transportation industry.

At the same time, the new Republican majority in Congress was pressing Amtrak to become self-sufficient. The railroad's board was looking for a high-speed train that could help achieve that goal by attracting new riders without costing too much. Bombardier-Alstom's bid seemed to promise all that.

The companies proposed adapting the fast French TGV train, which Alstom had designed, with tilt technology. They pledged to assemble the cars with American workers in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Barre, Vt. They agreed to maintain the trains for a relatively low price. And they offered, with the assistance of the Canadian government, a generous package of loans worth more than $600 million to help Amtrak buy the trains, a virtual no-money-down deal.

"We were under the gun" to cut costs, said Tommy G. Thompson, who was chairman of the Amtrak board from 1998 through 2001. "The Acela was a vehicle by which we thought we could reach self-sufficiency."

But, he added, "We had problems with Bombardier from the get-go."

When Amtrak began seeking bids for a new train, it hoped to avoid creating "some customized product that looked like a Defense Department project," Mr. Downs, the former Amtrak chairman, said in an interview. "But it didn't work that way."

Instead, in Bombardier-Alstom, Amtrak had chosen a company that had to design an almost entirely new train. In addition, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the railroad, began issuing thousands of design demands. Some were trivial, ranging from wall coverings to door chimes. But others were not.

'High-Velocity Bank Vault'

Unlike European and Japanese high-speed trains, most of which run on dedicated lines, Amtrak shares the Northeast Corridor with bulky, slow freight trains. The railroad agency has long required that passenger trains be heavier than European ones to withstand crashes.

Bombardier knew its new train would have to meet those requirements, a spokeswoman said. But Mr. Downs said he asked the rail agency to ease that standard for the new high-speed trains, to no avail.

"They decided they wanted to make this the safest train in the world," he said. "All my engineers thought the rules were nuts."

He dubbed the Acela "the high-velocity bank vault."

Railroad Administration officials contend that Amtrak did not object to the safety requirements.

The result was that the new train weighed more than double the French TGV train on which it was based. The added weight did not slow the new train down, as it ran up to 170 miles an hour in tests.

But several former Amtrak officials say the suspension system on the Acela may have been designed for a lighter train. "Heavier trains are harder to get started, and they are harder to stop," said Mr. Downs, noting the brake problems.

When asked if the problems were the result of marrying a European underbody to an American car, Robert D. Jameson, the acting federal railroad administrator, said that the cause was still under investigation.

"To the extent you take something built for another purpose and associate with the car bodies on these trailers and power cars, and they're not compatible, then potentially you have problems," Mr. Jameson said.

While the trains were being assembled, Amtrak discovered an embarrassing error, one that would provide fodder for late-night talk shows. Engineers realized that the car bodies were four inches too wide for their tilt systems to work properly.

If two Acela trains were going around a curve in opposite directions, and the tilt system on one broke, the trains could brush against each other. Limiting their tilt meant the trains would have to run at slower speeds around bends, but Amtrak said it would still meet its goals for trip times.

The consortium blamed Amtrak for making a sudden change in its safety requirements. But David J. Carol, Amtrak's vice president of high-speed rail, said at the time that "Bombardier has never been particularly candid with us about how this happened."

Consortium officials also complained about excessive meddling by Amtrak on the interior design. But a former Amtrak official, who asked that his name be withheld because he did not want to be publicly involved in the dispute, said railroad officials believed that the interior was being given short shrift, even though the train was supposed to attract sophisticated customers.

"It looked like a commuter car from the 1970's," the official said of the manufacturer's original plan.

Even Amtrak's initial $16 million marketing campaign for the new train drew criticism.

In the summer of 1999, the company announced that it had dropped "American Flyer" in favor of Acela, a fusion of "acceleration" and "excellence" devised by a New York consultant. (When he became Amtrak president, Mr. Gunn ridiculed the train's name, often opening speeches with a joke: "What is Acela? It's the room under the first floor.")

Rather than emphasizing the train's speed or convenience, the first advertisements featured dreamlike images with offbeat captions. Some riders told The Philadelphia Inquirer that one advertisement, picturing a man with an overcoat around his head and the words, "Depart from your inhibitions," made them think of a flasher.

The campaign was intended to build excitement for Acela's scheduled arrival in late 1999. But it ended well before the train's inaugural run, which was delayed for a year because testing uncovered cracked bolts and a tendency of the wheels to oscillate on the rails, a dangerous condition known as "truck hunting."

When the Acela finally made its first trip from Washington's Union Station on Dec. 12, 2000, Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater said it would "transform transportation along the Northeast Corridor" and "serve as an engine for economic growth."

The train arrived in Boston 6 hours 43 minutes later, just 12 minutes late.

Today, Acela is capable of reaching 150 m.p.h., but travels that fast only on an 18-mile stretch in Rhode Island and a 10-mile stretch in Massachusetts. It has not achieved Congress's goal of a three-hour trip from Boston to New York, typically making the run in 3 hours 20 minutes. And about a quarter of the time the trains are late, recent Amtrak statistics show.

Now, with the train out of service, frustrations are at a boiling point on the Metroliners that Amtrak has deployed to replace the Acelas. On the jam-packed "Vermonter" that pulled out of Union Station on Friday afternoon, dozens of passengers were left standing in the aisles, sprawled across luggage and pushed against walls. By the time it reached New York, the bar car was out of wine, and the train was an hour behind.

"It's been horrible, horrible, horrible," said Debbie Sugiyama, 37. "But they had no problem taking our tickets and our money."

Trouble in Washington

Amtrak officials are confident that customers will flock back to the Acela once it returns to service, whenever that may be. Less certain is the railroad's future on Capitol Hill.

Created by Congress to be a for-profit private corporation, Amtrak is also required to provide a minimum level of intercity passenger service - even if that means maintaining unprofitable lines.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, underscored that conflicting mandate this past week. Defending Amtrak's money-losing long-distance trains, which serve her state, Ms. Hutchinson said, "My motto for passenger rails is 'national or nothing.' "

While Amtrak has some bipartisan support in Congress, it is also strongly disliked by a significant block of conservative lawmakers who view it as a poorly managed drain on the treasury and want it privatized.

Neither side can prevail, but they can fight to a stalemate. And the result is often that Amtrak receives enough to survive, but never quite enough to meet its needs for new equipment and better railways.

"The basic problem with Amtrak is that it has been on a starvation budget for 20 years," said Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York.

The standoff in Congress makes it less likely that President Bush's proposal for radically restructuring the passenger rail system will gain traction on Capitol Hill. Representative John L. Mica, Republican of Florida, who strongly supports privatizing the railroad, said he is not optimistic about change.

"At some point, Congress and people in the Northeast Corridor are going to have to wake up and look at some serious alternatives to Amtrak," he said. "But maybe it hasn't gotten quite bad enough yet."

(James Dao and Matthew L. Wald reported for this article from Washington, and Don Phillips from Paris. Anne E. Kornblut contributed reporting from Washington.)

04-24-05 09:41 EDT

Copyright © 2005 The New York Times Company.


  by Robert Paniagua
Now, they won't be running until after Labor Day, perhaps...

  by Nasadowsk
Don't hold your breath. If they insist on a whole new brake rotor, plus testing and all, it'll be a long time. Especially if the brake maker's the 'fall guy' in the whole fiasco - they no longer have a reason to bother with this as a hot project - it'll slide to the back burner and they'll just take their time....

Heck, if I were at Knorr, with the way the finger was pointed at me publicly and prematurely? I'd just tell the engineering staff to worry about this one some other time - inept customer, inept builder, involves an incompetent agenc, minor order, and it's not costing me any real bussines anyway.

  by Robert Paniagua
Well, then Acela may have to be delayed till April 2006, one year after the first problem, who knows

  by Nasadowsk
Who knows? I sure as heck wouldn't hold my breath though. There's obviously a few issues, but everyone blamed the brake system maker initially? Heck, Knorr is downright crazy to bother at this point - tiny dead end order, nothing but bad PR, lots of engineering work, and they're taking the fall for some bigger issue, likely. I doubt they're working overtime on it, and I sure wouldn't blame them for taking their time - nobody likes being labeled the 'problem' in these projects, and generally, they take their merry time when they are. That's why you hear PR people sometimes going to amazing lengths to not bash some company involved with something.