Massive outage shuts down Amtrak

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – A massive power outage on Amtrak’s busiest corridor Thursday stranded tens of thousands of passengers for hours in hot, smelly cars – some in tunnels under the Hudson River – in the latest of several recent embarrassments for the perpetually money-losing railroad.

The cause of the outage, which created widespread disruptions from Washington to Boston, had not been determined by mid-afternoon Thursday.

Power was out for nearly three hours, affecting not only the nation’s federally subsidized passenger railroad but also commuter lines in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Many passengers simply got out of stuck rail cars and walked to the next station.

“I’m going to take a long, hard look at the Delta shuttle next time,” said Jeff Oppenheim, a New York actor and director who was stuck for more than three hours in a dark, sweltering tunnel outside New York’s Penn Station on his way to a meeting in Washington.

Amtrak officials were reviewing electronic logs to identify the sequence of events to determine what happened, said Amtrak acting President David Hughes.

“It doesn’t appear that there was any major physical failure, but something tripped, and there was some sequence of events and a protective system shut everything down,” Hughes said.

Hughes did not know how many Amtrak trains were affected but on a typical day, Amtrak operates 97 train departures between New York and Washington and 42 departures between New York and Boston.

Thirteen NJ Transit trains also were stopped dead on the tracks by the outage, along with 28 SEPTA trains in Philadelphia and eight on Maryland’s MARC system.

Passengers stuck on trains described rapidly worsening conditions as the outage dragged on.

“When you lose the power, you lose all the flushes too,” said Oppenheim, who was stuck aboard an Acela train.

“It’s starting to smell back here,” said Krista Barry of Pennsauken, who sat reading a book on the floor of an NJ Transit train, accepting friends’ cell-phone condolences on having to spend her 23rd birthday stuck on a train.

“I’m going to get a big venti cappuccino when I get home,” Barry said.

The outage prompted cries for changes in the management of Amtrak, which has been without a permanent president since David Gunn was fired in November.

“If there was ever proof that Amtrak is being terribly mismanaged with unqualified people at the helm, this power outage at the height of the morning rush hour is it,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “This outage quite literally stopped thousands in their tracks and for a rail service that so many people rely on, this is unacceptable.”

Amtrak officials declined to respond to the criticism.

Amtrak has debt of more than $3.5 billion and its operating loss for 2005 topped $550 million. It has never turned a profit in its 35 years of existence. The railroad has had a host of problems in the last year.

In April 2005, Amtrak had to cancel its Acela Express service because of brake problems with the high-speed trains that carry passengers between Washington, New York and Boston. Full service was not restored until September.

Gunn was fired a few days after the Government Accountability Office – Congress’ auditing arm – issued a blistering report saying Amtrak needed to improve the way it monitors performance and oversees its finances. Gunn has said he was fired because he did not approve of the Amtrak board’s plans on a host of issues.

In 2005, President Bush proposed giving Amtrak no money whatsoever, but Congress approved $1.3 billion for the railway. Amtrak’s budget request for the next fiscal year is $1.59 billion, while Bush is calling for $900 million.

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