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Amtrak at crossing: Increasing ridership, declining funding

Jason Cato
| Friday, Sept. 30, 2011

Deborah Myers this week made her annual migration south, an intermodal journey to deliver her snowbird father to his Florida winter home that includes chugging along railroad tracks.

"I think it's nice to have public transportation like this, and the train is very comfortable," Myers, 57, of Cranberry said as she rode in a coach car from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, one of the record number of Amtrak passengers this fiscal year, which ends today.

Amtrak for the first time carried more than 30 million passengers in a year, surpassing last year's 28.7 million and stretching its string of record-setting years to eight of the last nine.

The number of passengers who rode the Pennsylvanian, a route leaving Pittsburgh each morning for New York City via Harrisburg and Philadelphia, could top last year's record 203,392 when Amtrak releases final numbers.

"It's a very exciting time for Amtrak," said company spokeswoman Danelle Hunter. "We're seeing a shift in the level of interest from Americans in riding the train."

Yet, despite Amtrak experiencing the most successful period in its 40-year history, members of Congress want to substantially cut its federal money and privatizate its routes. Among those leading the charge is Rep. Bill Shuster, a Blair County Republican who chairs the House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee.

"Amtrak needs to operate like a business operates. We're losing money every year," Shuster said. "I don't believe it should necessarily turn a profit, but it should break even or at least drastically reduce the amount of money it takes from taxpayers."

Amtrak officials have heard this before.

"There will always be criticism, but we stand by the work we do," Hunter said.

When interstate highways and airlines decimated privately operated passenger trains, Congress in 1970 established the National Railroad Passenger Corp. as the country's provider of intercity passenger rail service. Operating as Amtrak, it rolled its first trains in May 1971 and today runs more than 315 trains a day over 43 routes covering 46 states.

The quasi-governmental corporation has received nearly $36.5 billion from Congress over its life. By comparison, the Department of Transportation budget last year was $79 billion.

"People don't understand just how expensive transportation really is," said Bob Johnston, a Chicago-based passenger rail columnist for Trains magazine.

For its 2012 budget, Amtrak asked Congress for $2.2 billion -- $616 million for operations and $1.6 billion for capital investments and debt payments.

A House Appropriations subcommittee this month recommended cutting Amtrak's operating grant to $227 million -- an amount Amtrak officials warned could be catastrophic. A Senate committee countered with a recommendation of $544 million, a figure lawmakers are more likely to approve, said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"Amtrak is likely in this scenario not to be shut down, but they are likely to have serious problems," Capon said.

A popular notion among Amtrak supporters is that Congress provides just enough financial support for Amtrak not to be successful.

"You can't starve an entity to death and then complain when it is not performing at an optimal level," said John Robert Smith, a former Amtrak board chairman who is president and CEO of Reconnecting America, a Washington policy group that supports transit-oriented development.

Shuster said he believes Amtrak would attract more riders and higher revenue if it partnered or contracted with private rail companies that operate in other countries, such as Veolia from France and Virgin Trains in the United Kingdom. Shuster said these companies could do a better job running Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, its most lucrative route, from Washington to Boston via New York City.

Private operators could increase speeds, service and revenue faster than Amtrak, he said. "That's the answer, getting the private sector involved. And they are interested."

Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express and regional trains in that corridor last year carried 10.4 million passengers -- more than a third of Amtrak's passengers.

The Northeast Corridor is the largest stretch of railroad Amtrak owns. Most other routes run on tracks it leases from private freight companies, such as Norfolk Southern and CSX.

In June, Shuster and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., sponsored legislation seeking a public-private partnership for the corridor. It would open up other intercity routes to private competition. Amtrak would exist under Shuster's plan, but would manage passenger rail service rather than operate it.

"I am not anti-Amtrak, but it needs to change the way it does business," said Shuster, who often rides Amtrak from Harrisburg to Washington and New York.

Smith said he doesn't think privatization is necessary for Amtrak to continue its recent record of success, as long as passenger rail is fast, frequent and on time.

Shashidhar Jakkali, 43, of Moon prefers train travel over driving or flying. Getting more people to ride trains is the answer, said Jakkali, CEO of a Downtown-based software company, as he rode Amtrak to Newark, N.J., for a business meeting.

"Once people start taking to the trains a lot more, everything will fall in place," Jakkali said. "Revenues will go up, and subsidies can go down."

Gil Carmichael, former head of the Federal Railroad Administration and a prominent Republican supporter of Amtrak, applauded the Obama administration for investing in passenger rail service. The president allocated nearly $11 billion on high-speed rail expansion since taking office, including $8 billion in the 2009 economic stimulus package. The White House proposed spending $53 billion over the next six years.

Carmichael, a former Amtrak board member who has been renominated, said he believes Amtrak should franchise some routes to private companies, expand high-speed rail lines on land freight companies own, connect passenger rail with major airports and order trains that could be leased the way airlines do with planes.

"If I get back on the board, you'll see train sets ordered real fast and a Pittsburgh airport train station on track," Carmichael said.

Amtrak ordered 130 long-distance cars and 70 electric locomotives, Hunter said, noting "Pennsylvania will see some of that new equipment."

Myers said she hopes passenger rail travel becomes more convenient. This is the fourth year she boarded a train Downtown at 7:20 a.m. and rode to Harrisburg. From there, she drove her father to his home in Sebring, Fla. She'll catch a train to Orlando and fly back to Pittsburgh. In spring, she'll fly to Florida, drive her father home and ride Amtrak into Pittsburgh.

"I enjoy this part," Myers said on the train. "It's nice."

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