Amtrak: Acela Problems Derailed Us

Amtrak's Acela Express arrives in this Aug. 20, 2001, file photo at the the Route 128 Amtrak station in Westwood, Mass. Amtrak's high-speed train service between Washington and Boston is expected to pass the million-passenger mark sometime this month after a year of operation. Acela Express, billed as America's first high-speed train, capable of speeds up to 150 mph, experienced a surge in ridership after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks discouraged many from traveling by airplane AP

Amtrak says the equipment problems that sidelined its high-speed Acela Express trains — some of which are still being repaired — cost about $9 million in ticket revenue and an estimated 76,000 passengers last month.

"As you could bet, having a lot of these trains out of service in August hurt our revenue," Amtrak President David Gunn wrote in a message to the passenger railroad's employees on Thursday.

A month after inspectors first discovered cracks underneath Acela Express locomotives, the premier service still is not back to full strength in the Northeast. Twelve of the trains are running each weekday, compared to 15 normally.

Temporary repairs continue on the remainder of the fleet. Amtrak owns 18 Acela Express trains, which consist of six passenger cars and two locomotives.

Amtrak sidelined the trains Aug. 13 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.

The cause of the cracking, and a permanent fix for the trains, remain the subject of talks among Amtrak, federal railroad officials, and the companies that built the trains, Montreal-based Bombardier Transportation of North America and Alstom Ltd. of France.

Ever since the high-speed trains were sidelined, Amtrak has pressed additional conventional trains into duty between Washington, New York and Boston, its busiest corridor. Still, some trains have been crowded or sold out.

About 10,000 people had been riding the amenity-filled, premium-priced Acela Express trains — which are capable of speeds of 150 mph — on a normal weekday. A major question throughout August was how many of them would use other Amtrak trains, at lower fares, and how many would either skip planned trips or switch to air shuttles.

In some respects, the $9 million revenue loss pales in comparison to Amtrak's larger financial challenges. It expects to post an operating loss of at least $1 billion this year, about the same as last year. Its operating budget for a typical month is $75 million.

Amtrak's estimate of a net ridership loss of 76,000 over the final 19 days of August breaks down to 4,000 fewer passengers per day.

Through August, Amtrak's national ridership for fiscal year 2002 was down 0.5 percent, at 21.7 million, but ticket revenues were up 9 percent at $1.2 billion.

By Laurence Arnold
  • Lloyd Vries

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