Politics & Policy

Derailment

Amtrak fails.

As Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express trains sit idle on sidetracks due to faulty brakes, we need to ask ourselves what have taxpayers gotten for the $29 billion put into Amtrak thus far?

The answer: Not much.

Amtrak wants the highest subsidies ever now, in asking for $1.82 billion for 2006. Its chairman explained that without this support, the railroad would have no cash by September. Year after year Congress allocates funds to keep Amtrak from going bankrupt.

Amtrak has failed again. Last month it suspended its flagship Acela Express service because of faulty brakes. The trains are not expected back on track until “sometime this summer,” according to Amtrak officials. Amtrak keeps promising a glorious new day for train travel but has yet to deliver it.

Long before the brakes went bad, Acela Express breakdowns were plentiful and resulted in train cancellations, late arrivals, and lawsuits. But the resulting drop in ticket revenues for the trains that travel between Boston, New York, and Washington is the latest in a long list of reasons why Amtrak is heading toward bankruptcy–again.

Acela Express schedules (when the trains did run) were embarrassing when compared with trains a half-century ago. In 1954, the New Haven Railroad’s Advance Merchants Limited linked New York with Boston in 3 hours and 57 minutes. The Acela was only about 30 minutes faster.

The train was supposed to be the railroad’s crown jewel and help “save Amtrak.” In fact, the Acela shows that Amtrak lacks the distinctive competencies required to design a high-technology train to serve the consumer-travel market. Acela is a case study in poor design, excessive delivery delays, component failures, and rising costs.

Problems started in May 1993 when Amtrak began the procurement process, promising that all Acela trains would be running by 1998. In June 2003–five years behind the initial schedule–the last train was delivered.

Amtrak’s initial mistake was failing to purchase a proven train and adapt it to domestic rail-safety standards. Amtrak certainly had experience with proven train designs. The railroad tested several trains, including a Swedish-Swiss high-speed train that tilts when going around curves thus permitting higher speeds while maintaining passenger comfort. The tests were successful, the train’s reliability was extraordinarily high, and the interiors received rave passenger reviews. But Amtrak went to a new design, a decision that brought about years of problems.

For instance, the manufacturer of the Acela, Montreal-based Bombardier Corp., claimed in a 2001 lawsuit (since settled) that, as a result of Amtrak interference, designs were modified thousands of times, completed components had to be discarded or retrofitted, and costs rose. As one court document reported, “the magnitude of the extra work caused by Amtrak is reflected in the vast contract record–over 19,900 letters, 9,000 engineering change notices, 4,700 retrofit notices, and 800 formally recorded meetings.”

Only after production started did officials learn that the trains were four inches too wide to permit normal use of the tilting mechanism. This slowed Acela. When functioning, the train runs at its top speed of 150 miles per hour on only 18 miles of the entire Boston-Washington route.

Acela Express traffic has increased, but unfortunately, many riders simply shifted over from Metroliners. The forecasted two million additional high-fare passengers who were to generate $300 million in added revenues annually haven’t materialized. Taxpayer-financed Acela Express trains parked in rail yards symbolize Amtrak’s inability to spend money wisely.

Not only does Amtrak fail at designing trains, the railroad fails at fixing a market-insensitive national route system. After all, more than half of Amtrak’s traffic rides over only ten percent of the system. If ever the federal government had a calcified organization that needed to be cut, it is Amtrak.

Congressional pork-barrel spenders assert that Amtrak’s problems stem from inadequate government subsidies. But Amtrak fails because it has never learned fiscal discipline. Amtrak has vaporized billions in federal subsidies and wants more. It’s time to phase out Amtrak and stop designing and running trains that are lemons.

By the way, the word “Acela” is a combination of the words “accelerate” and “excellence.” Some of us, however, think it’s Amtrak-ese for “fiasco.”

Joseph Vranich, former president of the High Speed Rail Association, is the author of End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America’s Passenger Trains (AEI Press, 2004).

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