WASHINGTON (AP) – Stressed-out travelers shuffled through long lines at Union Station on Friday, while 20 yards away Amtrak officials stood before a closed gate explaining why brake problems had shut down indefinitely the high-speed Acela Express.

Roughly 10,000 riders were left scrambling to find another train or another way to get home, the latest headache to hit the troubled rail company already facing a federal budget ax.

Standing in a line that stretched far past its gate, Philadelphia academic Ken Johnson – a regular Acela rider – sounded resigned to what he expected to be his second two-hour ride standing. He said he had to stand the whole way down to Washington on Friday morning after his Acela train was canceled.

“It’s frustrating,” Johnson said. “I hate to say it, but I’ve come to expect this from Amtrak.”

All Acela service between Washington, New York, and Boston will be suspended at least through next Wednesday and some will likely be shut down for much longer because of newly discovered cracks in disc brakes, said Amtrak chief operating officer Bill Crosbie.

“We’re very early into this,” said Crosbie, estimating it would take more than two months to do all the repairs, depending on the availability of replacement parts.

Millimeter-sized cracks were found in 300 of the Acela fleet’s 1,440 disc brake rotors.

Amtrak said extra trains being added to their remade schedule could not compensate for all the lost Acela seats. People with reservations who cannot get a ticket on another train – or don’t want one – are entitled to a refund, the company said.

Amtrak normally runs 15 Acela weekday roundtrips between New York and Washington and 11 between New York and Boston. Acela accounts for about 20 percent of Amtrak’s Boston-New York-Washington weekday service, some 9,000 passengers. On Friday’s, that’s usually about 10,000.

The cracked brakes come at a bad time for Amtrak. A Senate committee will debate next week whether to end the rail service’s federal subsidy – as the Bush administration wants – and radically reshape train travel in the United States.

“We’re always under political pressure,” said Amtrak CEO David Gunn. “I don’t think that this will be a factor per se.”

When Acela service was launched Dec. 11, 2000, the trains were billed as the faster, brighter future of Amtrak. Running only in the Northeast corridor, the trains can reach speeds of 150 mph and feature amenities such as conference tables in passenger cars, pub-style cafe cars with expanded menus and three audio music channels with headphone outlets at each seat.

The manufacturer, Bombardier Inc., had no immediate explanation for the cracks found on the steel spokes of disc brakes on most coaches.

The cracks were discovered during routine inspections, and no brake failures or other safety problems have occurred, Amtrak said.

Lawmakers already upset over the Bush administration’s plans to end most funding for Amtrak contended that the incident shows Amtrak needs more help, not less.

“When Amtrak is terribly underfunded and has to operate on a shoestring budget, these kinds of things will keep happening, which will really disrupt people’s lives and our economy,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

The White House seeks to radically reshape what Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta had called “a dying railroad company.”

A day before the Acela cancellation, the administration sent Congress a plan to reshape Amtrak as a private operator focused on running trains, not maintaining tracks or stations.

President Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak’s operating subsidy in his 2006 budget. If the railroad ceased operating, the administration has offered to set aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor. The current budget gives Amtrak some $1.2 billion in operating subsidies and capital investment.

Acela Express service also was halted in August 2002 after inspectors discovered cracks on a bracket holding a shock-absorbing assembly to one Acela Express locomotive. Additional cracks were later found around the assemblies of other locomotives.


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