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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Talking Transportation:  Amtrak�s Acela Woes

By Jim Cameron

Special to WestportNow

Amtrak�s flagship train, the 165-mph Acela, is in the shop again,  this time with troubling cracks in its disc brakes.  While the railroad and Bombardier are scrambling to find a fix and get these trains back on track, it seems an appropriate time to ask �how did we get in this mess?�


In the mid-1980s, Amtrak knew that in order to survive, it had to upgrade its aging Amfleet cars.  (I wish the Connecticut Department of Transportation � CDOT—and Metro-North were as proactive in fleet replacement!)

While Amtrak�s Metroliner was running New York to Washington in under three hours, the equipment could never make serious time on the increasingly important, but oh-so-curvaceous, New York-to-Boston run. 

While NYC to DC is pretty much a straight shot, the Boston run has so many curves that trains complete 11 complete circles on the 240-mile run.  And Amfleet cars don�t tilt, forcing slower speeds.

Rather than straighten out the tracks, Amtrak decided to smooth out the curves with car-tilting technology. The best tilting technology is found on the ABB-built X2000, a Swedish train that runs between Stockholm and Gothenburg, a similarly curve-challenged run. 

So Amtrak brought an X2000 train set to the United States and put it to the test.  The train performed flawlessly, as I can attest from riding it several times in 1992.

Amtrak also experimented with the German ICE (Inter-City Express) train which runs on dedicated tracks in Europe at similarly high speeds. The ICE Train didn�t fair as well because it doesn�t tilt. 

A German engineer on one run I took on the ICE Train in 1993 complained that US track beds are poorly maintained, causing a very rough ride. Typical engineer—blaming the tracks, not their train.

Having experimented with two of the best high speed train technologies in the world, which did Amtrak chose?  Neither. Rather than go with a proven, off-the-shelf technology, Amtrak decided to �reinvent the wheel� and build its own high speed train, mostly because (now financially-troubled) Bombardier offered attractive financing.

Big mistake, both in slowing the introduction of this badly needed train and, as we�ve seen once again, designing in as many problems as solutions.

No sooner was Acela built and put on the Northeast Corridor for testing than they discovered that somebody goofed at the drawing board. Acela was built 4 inches wider than planned. Tracks in Connecticut are too close together to allow two tilting Acela�s, traveling in opposite directions, to clear each other as they pass. 

Already Acela was crippled, losing its key technological advantage along one of the longest stretches of its run.

Amtrak sued Acela�s manufacturer Bombardier, and they sued Amtrak.  During testing, Amtrak found Acela�s wheels were suffering excessive wear.  Later, defective bolts were found.

After finally getting one Acela trainset in service in December 2000, new problems developed—cracks in crucial �yaw dampers.�  Those were fixed and Acela went back in service.

But reliability issues and constant repairs then forced Amtrak to suspend weekend service. And now, the cracks in the disc brakes.

Don�t get me wrong.  I love Acela and gladly pay the higher fares to ride it whenever possible, even to save just a few minutes of travel time. I just wish that Amtrak had got it right the first time and built a train that�s both fast and reliable.

Finally, about this name �Acela,� dreamed up at big expense by the branding experts at IDEO.  As Amtrak�s current CEO David Gunn once noted, �Everyone knows what Acela is.  It�s a basement!�

jimcameron75.jpg(Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is vice chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council and a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area, one of five Transportation Investment Areas established by the Connecticut General Assembly in July 2001 to develop 20-year strategic plans for each of the state’s major transportation corridors. He is also a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting. The opinions and accuracy of information in this article are the responsibility of the contributor. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or


Posted 04/27/05 at 03:09 AM  Permalink


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Acela is an example of how a big government subsidised agency cannot run well.  In addition to making poor choices in rolling stock, Amtrak continues to take funds from the profitable NE Corridor and fund money-losing operations out west to keep Congress happy and keep the subsidies flowing.  Amtrak should file for bankruptcy and be rationalized so a private buyer can purchase it.  My guess is that the excess value in the track, stations and misc property could offset any purchase price.

Posted by PaulyG on April 27, 2005 at 11:06 AM | #

Right on, PaulyG!  Stop the bailouts and let someone who can run it by making profit take over!

Posted by christian on April 27, 2005 at 01:24 PM | #

There isn’t a chance in the world that you can find a private operator to run the passenger rail AND turn a profit.  There isn’t a system anywhere in the world that is not subsidized.  What the United States needs to do is build a REAL rail network and fund it properly.  Rail infrastructure receives a pittance compared to roads and aviation.  Bottom line here is “You get what you pay for”.  If you keep starving Amtrak (or any other entity), eventually, it will go away.  Do you really want to lose a method of transportation in this day?

Posted by John on April 27, 2005 at 01:49 PM | #

I agree, John; those who decry Amtrak subsidies never seem to have an issue with the billions we pour into commercial aviation, highways, and still-cheap gasoline (by world standards).  The fact is that far from being hands off, our government has made a conscious decision to expand freeways and airports and let trains die on the vine.  Ironically, it’s mostly “small government” Republicans who insist on maintaining impractical train service in remote Western locations as a “payback” of sorts for throwing a few crumbs to Amtrak.

Posted by Privitization doesn't cure everything on April 27, 2005 at 02:10 PM | #

I repeat, the NE Corridor is profitable, but the west is not. There is a romantic image around rail travel, but do you want to take a train or a plane to LA and Chicago?  Didn’t think so.  The distances in Europe are small compared to the USA.  Lets look at Canada and Australia for comparison.  Not much train service there either.  BTW, empty trains use more energy than full single occupancy cars.

Posted by PaulyG on April 27, 2005 at 03:09 PM | #

...and I would LOVE to see the eminent domain fight to take land to straigten the rails and the complaints from Westport residents as the new trains go by at TGV speeds: 140mph-200mph.

Posted by PaulyG on April 27, 2005 at 03:29 PM | #

Amtrak has plenty of woes to worry about. Mis-management has run rampant. Granted David Gunn has done alot to straighten that out. now hes trying to send the labor down the river. he wants to break the unions that made the company what it is today. the only form of transportation running in a national emergency. one of the most convenient forms of transportation on the northeast. a leader in safety for the rail industry. the list goes on and on. Westport is the least of Amtraks problems. that territory is owned by Metro North….they are the hold up in why amtrak cant meet the 3 hours from Newyork to Boston. The track centers in there are are too close together so the Acela has to turn off the Tilt Body and can only run 55 (i think) in some areas (curves). You can hear them turn it off coming to mill river in new haven just behind Loews a whine and a loud clunk inside the car. amtraks fight with eminent domain would be more in the areas with the visible ocean like the Mystic, Stonington area.Yes changes need to be made in the company, but sould it be done by people who have been on other Failed railroads? why arent the labor being asked “where could we save money?” there is a lot more id like to complain about but i wont….yet

Posted by JohnM on April 27, 2005 at 08:28 PM | #

The USA need rail transportation for our growing
population. We all know that highways and airplanes have their limits. The problem is
how to finance it and to make it, the best rail system in the world. I believe,” Social Security”
should fund it to completion. And when it is
sucessful, reap the profits, that it is sure to

Posted by Fred A. Cardinal on April 28, 2005 at 02:04 AM | #

I beg to differ on the subject of Western vs. Eastern profitability.  Neither will ever make money but the cost of ALL the trains west of the fabled NEC are a mere pittance compared to that operation.  The cost for running everything outside of the NEC is barely $300 million per year.  The NEC is a bottomless money pit at best.  Yes, it might be profitable to run trains there…if very costly new passenger only tracks a la TGV are laid.  Please stop bashing the WEST, which to you people probably begins before the Appalachian mountain ranges.

Posted by R. van Wormer on April 28, 2005 at 04:18 PM | #

I have to agree with R. van Wormer the the North Eastern trains run on dedicated trackage that is owned and maintained by Amtrak.  In the west Amtrak runs on freight trackage for a very minimal cost.  Unfortunatly, as I understand it, the USDOT spreads this fixed trackage cost over the whole operation which makes western routes look worse.

The fact is that cutting all of the Western routes will only make Amtrak’s profitability worse not better.

Posted by TD on May 12, 2005 at 05:49 PM | #

Railroad passengers paid for airport construction through special tax!
Between 1942 and 1962 a 10% rail ticket tax was levied on railroads as a war measure to discourage unnecessary travel. This tax generated revenues of over $5 Billion, which went into the general revenue fund and ironically, was used in some
cases to build more airports and highways. In today’s dollars, that probably would amount to about $100 billion and one wonders what would have happened if that money had been invested in rail service after the war. By the time, the tax was lifted, the passenger train was already on the ropes. -Source: report by USDOT Secretary William Coleman, 1977

Air passengers also paid a federal passenger tax, also as a war emergency measure, but the government was busily investing in air facilities at five times the rate at which taxes were being collected. -Source: Study of Federal Aid to Rail
Transportation, USDOT, Jan 1977

Posted by TD on May 12, 2005 at 05:54 PM | #

Much is made of the $30 billion spent on Amtrak over the last 30 years, but in that same period the federal government spent $1.89 TRILLION on air and highway modes, according to the New York Times and Washington Post.

Since 1946, the federal government has poured billions of dollars into airport development. In 1992, Prof. Stephen Paul Dempsey of the University of Denver estimated that the current replacement value of the U.S. commercial airport system-virtually all of it developed with federal grants and tax-free municipal bonds-at $1 trillion.

Not until 1971 did the federal government begin collecting user fees from airline passengers and freight shippers to recoup this investment. In 1988 the Congressional Budget Office found that in spite of user fees paid into the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, the taxpayers still had to transfer $3 billion in subsidies per year to the FAA to maintain its network of more than 400 control towers, 22 air traffic control centers, 1,000 radar-navigation aids, 250 long-range and terminal radar systems and its staff of 55,000 traffic controllers, technicians and bureaucrats.
- James Coston, member, Amtrak Reform Council, 2001.

Posted by TD on May 12, 2005 at 05:55 PM | #

U.S. Department of Transportation Funding, 2002:

$32,300,000,000 54% Highways
$14,000,000,000 23% Aviation/ airports
$  5,000,000,000   Mass transit
$  4,000,000,000   Maritime
$    521,000,000 -1% Amtrak
$60,000,000,000   TOTAL USDOT BUDGET

Federal transportation funding 1971-2001

$1,890,000,000,000 Air & highway funding 63:1 ratio  
$    30,100,000,000 Amtrak funding  

-Sources: New York Times, Washington Post

Amtrak’s entire budget accounts for less than one per cent of US Department of Transportation spending—-$521 million vs. $33 billion for highways and $14 billion for air, not counting the post-Sep.11 bailout of $15 billion. -Source: US Department of Transportation

Posted by TD on May 12, 2005 at 05:57 PM | #

ANYONE with a basic functioning brain will realize that ALL US Transportation is subsidised, from road, airport facilities to the military cost of the cheap oil.

Unfortunatly some tend to overlook that when looking at Amtrak. 

The real question is how can we grow that RR transportation system to become even more valuble moving both freight and people.  The basic physics of rail determine that it is more fuel efficient.  As a nation we must exploit this not destroy it.

Posted by TD on May 12, 2005 at 06:06 PM | #