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Amtrak Sues Train's Manufacturer Over Design Flaws

Railroad says delays are slowing introduction of high-speed rail. But company shifts blame.

November 22, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Amtrak is suing the manufacturer of its high-speed Acela Express train, escalating a year-old legal battle over design flaws that have slowed America's first attempt at high-speed rail.

Amtrak is seeking more than $200 million in damages from Bombardier Inc. of Canada and Alstom Ltd. of France for what it calls "extraordinary delays and pervasive failures" in carrying out the contract to build 20 of the sleek trains.

Bombardier launched the court battle in November 2001 by suing Amtrak for $200 million. Its lawsuit is pending before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon, who in September turned down Amtrak's request to dismiss the case. The railroad is appealing that decision.

Bombardier said Amtrak did not sufficiently upgrade tracks in the Northeast to prepare for the new trains, provided inaccurate information about tunnels and tracks and imposed "costly and time-consuming new design requirements" that, among other things, made the trains too heavy for high-speed service. Alstom did not join Bombardier's lawsuit.

In Amtrak's countersuit, filed Wednesday, the national passenger railroad says it is the victim of mismanagement by Bombardier and Alstom. It says Acela Express trains were not delivered on schedule and are not performing up to par in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor.

Amtrak says that Bombardier, by filing its lawsuit last year, violated a contract provision requiring attempts to settle disputes out of court. Bombardier's decision to go to court left Amtrak with no choice but to do the same, Amtrak President David Gunn said Thursday.

"We incurred substantial financial losses because of these problems and must unfortunately pursue through the legal system what the manufacturer has been unwilling to abide by in the contract," Gunn said.

A spokeswoman for Bombardier said the Montreal-based builder tried several times to resolve the case by mediation or arbitration, but Amtrak resisted.

"We welcome the filing of Amtrak's long-awaited counterclaim," said spokeswoman Carol Sharpe. "It's a necessary step toward resolution of the dispute."

A spokeswoman for Alstom declined to comment.

Bombardier and Alstom teamed up to win the $800-million Acela Express contract in 1996. The contract called for construction of 20 of the high-speed trains, plus 15 high-horsepower locomotives to pull conventional trains and three maintenance facilities. Bombardier is required under the contract to maintain and repair the trains for 10 years.

Amtrak hoped to introduce Acela Express in October 1999. It projected that the trains, capable of reaching speeds of 150 mph, would generate $180 million in profit each year.

After a series of delays, the inaugural Acela Express train entered service in December 2000. There were further delays in production of the rest of the trains. Amtrak has received 19 of them but says they all need to be rotated out of service for numerous improvements and repairs.

In August, the entire fleet was sidelined when cracks were discovered on and near brackets holding shock-absorbing assemblies to Acela Express locomotives. So far, Amtrak has returned 12 to daily duty, with three in reserve. On a typical day before the problem, 15 Acela locomotives were running in Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

Sharpe said Bombardier has designed an improved bracket to fix the problem. Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said the railroad is working with the Federal Railroad Administration to evaluate the proposed fix.

Amtrak has told Congress it needs $1.2 billion to maintain service for the current budget year.

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