Waiting for a Train Wreck

In the race to drive Amtrak right off the tracks and permanently into a ditch, it’s not clear who will jump the rails first -– the Bush administration or Amtrak’s own befuddled management.

For its part, the White House has proposed eliminating all funding for Amtrak, an idea one prominent Republican Senator yesterday called ridiculous. For their part, Amtrak executives have simply thrown up their hands as problems with their only profitable operation sent more than 10,000 regular commuters scrambling for alternative rail transportation this week.

And for the slacker media’s part, the whole event has been a yawner. Cover a press conference, rewrite the news releases, attend a Senate hearing, maybe dole out some data. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t ask any tough questions.

On Wednesday, Amtrak officials announced that the Boston to Washington Acela Express trains – which carry one out of every seven passengers on the national rail carrier – will be out of service at least until summer because of problems getting replacement brake parts. (That has had a dramatic ripple effect on the rest of Amtrak’s creaky service.)

As the Baltimore Sun’s Michael Dresser reported, “Acela’s manufacturer, a consortium of Montreal-based Bombardier and France’s Alstom S.A., has only 80 replacement brake parts in stock because neither Amtrak nor the consortium expected them to wear out as quickly as they did, according to officials.”

Is anybody other than the 10,000 Acela-less riders shaking their heads in disbelief? Not apparently anybody in the news business, who duly recorded that explanation from Amtrak’s president David Gunn at a Union Station news conference. Heck, your neighborhood NAPA store probably has that many spare parts for ’92 Buicks.

Unlike many of his colleagues at the briefing, Dresser took a few minutes, checked the clips and offered readers a short history of the troubled Acela operation, which debuted in 2000 as an unsuccessful attempt to make Amtrak profitable:

After testing some high-speed trains from Sweden and Germany in the early 1990s, Amtrak officials decided to design their own version and to have the equipment built by the consortium — a $1.1 billion deal that was largely driven by financing the cash-strapped railroad received from a bank set up to promote Canada’s exports.

Past Amtrak executives decided to move straight from design to production and to skip building a prototype. Gunn, who took the top job at Amtrak in 2002, questioned that decision. He also said the decision to contract out responsibility for maintenance to the manufacturer was a mistake….

The day after making its debut in December 2000, the first Acela was pulled out of service because of an electrical problem. The trains finally began regular service in 2001, but in 2002 Amtrak was forced to suspend Acela service because it found cracks in its wheel and shock-absorbing assemblies.

Although Amtrak serves 46 states, it is and always has been a travel perk for those living in the congested Northeastern corridor. (That makes the lack of interest among the media big feet in New York, Washington, Boston and Philadelphia even more inexcusable.) Past attempts to eviscerate the rail service have failed because it has strong backers (and regular users) in Congress and the business community.

The Bush administration has put forth a plan that would break up the rail carrier, turning over operations to states and commuter rail lines whose financial health is about as shaky as Amtrak’s. Although New York Times columnist John Tierney thinks eliminating Amtrak is a good idea, nobody has bothered to examine the ramifications of such a plan – except apparently for Sen. Trent Lott, who lambasted the White House for “the ridiculousness of this proposal.”

Maybe it’s time to go beyond the news releases and press briefings and do some reporting. One thing’s for certain: There are at least 10,000 people out there desperately seeking some answers.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Editor’s Note: Susan Q. Stranahan, chief of CJR Daily’s Maine bureau, occasionally rides the rails.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.