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With high-speed Acela service suspended, Amtrak’s regional trains filled up at Boston’s South Station on Friday.
With high-speed Acela service suspended, Amtrak’s regional trains filled up at Boston’s South Station on Friday. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

Acela's suspension another blow to rail

The Acela Express was supposed to be the driving force behind a new Amtrak: a high-speed train that could travel between Boston and New York in three hours and attract millions of new customers to turn around the struggling national railroad.

But since its maiden voyage five years ago -- a trip that ended 12 minutes late -- it has not worked out that way.

Amtrak's decision on Friday to suspend the Acela Express service after cracks were found in almost 20 percent of the train's brakes marks the second time in four years that Amtrak had to shut down its entire high-speed fleet. Meanwhile, Acela is struggling to hold onto its share of the market. Railroad analysts say Acela's passengers are being lured away by low-cost competition, including airlines and buses, and its inability to shake a reputation of delays and breakdowns.

The latest troubles have raised new questions about Acela's survival and renewed calls to privatize Amtrak, which operates in the red and requires at least $1.2 billion this year in federal subsidies.

''People who had hoped that the Acela Express would be a rising star that would lead Amtrak into some kind of successful program should be sorely disappointed," said Joseph Vranich, a former president of the High Speed Rail Association and author of ''End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger Trains."

''Amtrak has shown instead to be a lumbering bureaucracy that's incapable of delivering a good technology train that meets market demand," he added.

Amtrak officials said they would only be able to add three trains today from Boston to Washington, D.C., to replace the 10 Acela Express round-trip trains that normally run on Sunday. All 20 Acela Express trains remain out of service until Wednesday, and possibly for up to two months, Amtrak officials have said. The Acela Express carries about 2.6 million passengers a year.

Acela accounts for roughly 20 percent of Amtrak's ridership in the Northeast corridor and about 45 percent of its revenues for that route in the five months ending in February, according to Amtrak's latest monthly performance report. Acela targets business travelers, promoting first-class comforts such as electrical outlets for laptops, in-seat meal and beverage service, and hot towels.

Still, the European-style, high-speed service -- whose initial launch was delayed twice because of maintenance problems -- has been saddled with delays and costly repairs over the past five years. Amtrak never was able to reach its goal of getting passengers from Boston to New York in three hours because antiquated tracks and electrical wiring kept the trains from moving at top speeds of 150 miles per hour on most of the Northeast route. Then, in 2002, Amtrak shut down its Acela Express service for three weeks after cracks were discovered in more than half of the trains' shock absorbers.

As a result, Acela never reached its goal of attracting 2 million new passengers a year in the Boston-New York market, said Vranich, who was also a member of the Amtrak Reform Council created by federal legislation to assess the railroad's viability. The group, since dissolved, recommended Amtrak change its structure so it would not need federal subsidies.

Vicki Woodward, who had planned to take the Acela train from Boston to New York yesterday, said the high-speed service has never impressed her. Amtrak's most recent performance report shows that the Acela Express has an on-time arrival rate of 77.6 percent -- far less than Amtrak's 94 percent goal. ''It's not worth it," said Woodward, who estimated the trains are usually delayed by at least 20 minutes.

Woodward said she regularly used to take Acela to New York for business trips, but now takes the US Airways or Delta Air Lines shuttle that leaves hourly from Boston to New York. She said the flights are more punctual and not much more expensive than taking Acela. A round-trip Acela ticket costs about $200. A round-trip US Airways ticket can cost $262; the flight takes about an hour.

Amtrak itself has blamed sluggish ridership numbers on competition from low-cost airlines, especially in Boston, Providence, and Philadelphia, according to Amtrak's monthly performance reports. Southwest Airlines flies out of T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I., and about a half-dozen low-cost airlines have begun service in recent years at Boston's Logan Airport.

Passengers, on average, are paying less to fly today than they did in 1988, according to the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group in Washington. And if JetBlue Airways has its way when it begins service between Boston and New York, it may charge a $100 round-trip fare, making it cheaper to fly than to take the train. Some travel analysts say the recent bus-fare war has also hurt Acela. Led by newcomer Fung Wah Bus, bus fares between Boston and New York have dropped to $30 round trip. The trip takes about an hour longer than it would on Acela.

Buses may win over more travelers during Acela's shutdown. Amtrak has said it will not be able to add service to accommodate all the passengers who normally ride the high-speed train. A spokeswoman for Greyhound bus lines said yesterday that the company would add more buses, if needed, to handle displaced train travelers.

Karl Levy, 25, could be one of those converts. Levy had planned to take Acela home to New York from Boston's South Station, but decided to catch a bus yesterday instead of riding Amtrak's slower regional trains. Future trips, he said, will be on the bus. ''It's just not worth the trouble," he said of Amtrak service.

Acela's problems follow criticism by the Bush administration, which has proposed ending federal subsidies for the railroad. Company executives have said the national railroad needs more money than the $1.2 billion it received in fiscal year 2005 to keep the trains running.

Last week, President Bush proposed legislation that would allow private companies to bid for routes operated by Amtrak and turn over rail infrastructure to the states.

''Ultimately it's going to take private management to make Amtrak work," said Edward L. Hudgins, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington who has written in support of privatization. ''It just never turned into what was promised."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.



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