Amtrak said yesterday that its new Washington-to-Boston electric high-speed trains, which had been scheduled to run by December, will be delayed until at least next spring because a test train is still experiencing excessive wheel wear.
The delay of several months could be a blow to Amtrak's financial plan, raising doubts that the passenger-train corporation can meet a congressional deadline to break even on its operations by the end of fiscal 2002. The corporation had projected an additional $180 million a year in revenue from the new 150-mph trains.
Amtrak President George Warrington, however, repeatedly assured reporters that Amtrak would not only meet its financial plan but would surpass next year's goals early. He said Amtrak will cut costs and is negotiating unspecified commercial business deals that will bring in revenue.
"This in no way affects our ability and desire" to meet the financial plan, he said.
Even before yesterday's announcement of a delay in introducing the high-speed trains, both the General Accounting Office and the Transportation Department inspector general had expressed skepticism that Amtrak could meet its goals.
"The successful and timely commencement of high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor is critical to Amtrak's prospects for self-sufficiency," said a report issued by the inspector general in July. "A delay that reaches into late spring would start affecting a significant portion of the revenue growth we are projecting for the NEC [Northeast Corridor]."
Amtrak's financial plan calls for continuing subsidies for capital improvements but no operating subsidies after Sept. 30, 2002. The corporation projects that cash losses will decline from $560 million in fiscal 1999 to $265 million in fiscal 2002.
It was unclear how much of the current financial shortfall would be made up with revenue from financial penalties from the two major partners in the consortium building the train, Bombardier Inc. of Montreal and Alstom Transportation Inc. of Paris. The contract carries unusually stiff penalties for failure to meet schedules and for mechanical breakdowns.
Officials said at a news conference that the consortium is obligated to a graduated penalty for each of the 20 train sets that is delivered late, starting at $1,000 per day per train and rising to $13,500 per day per train. The last of the train sets was to have been delivered by June 2000.
Warrington had insisted for months that the first trains would begin running in November or December, even though the trains were experiencing problems with new wheel sets called "trucks."
First, the trucks began "truck hunting," or oscillating, at high speeds. The mechanical changes that stopped the truck hunting then caused unusually rapid wear to the wheel flanges. Part of the problem appears to be related to the heavy weight of the trains--they are twice as heavy as the French TGV, largely because of U.S. safety standards.
Officials said Altom is preparing certain fixes that will soften the ride of the truck and possibly stop the excessive wear.
Officials also said a new bistro car--or bar car--had been delayed somewhat by certain "manufacturing elements." In addition, some adjustments are still needed to dampen locomotive electromagnetic interference with signal systems.
Warrington said yesterday that Amtrak was "faced with a choice--cut corners to get the train out, or get it right the first time." He said a new schedule would be announced in 60 days, with service planned for sometime during the second quarter.
Meanwhile, Boston-to-New York service will be increased and speeded up somewhat with conventional equipment. Amtrak has spent $1.8 billion to upgrade parts of that route and to extend overhead electric traction wires from New Haven, Conn., to Boston, allowing use of electric locomotives that can accelerate faster than diesels.