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States get more say in their Amtrak routes

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:45 p.m.

ABOARD THE CAROLINIAN — On a recent afternoon, Amtrak's Carolinian pulls out of the Raleigh train station right on time at 4:50 p.m. It's southbound for Charlotte, with seven regularly scheduled stops along the way.

About 10 minutes into the trip, the train chugs to a stop at the North Carolina State Fair. Parents crowd on with young children lugging huge stuffed bears and giraffes. The booty is crammed into overhead luggage bins, and the train is soon on its way again.

Al and Nancy Parker, who are returning home to Concord after a day at the fair, make their way to the lounge car for a round or two of adult beverages.

“We love doing this,” says Al Parker, 69. “We take the train up in the morning and do the fair until about 4. It gives you enough time to enjoy the fair, and you don't have to worry about the traffic on the way home.”

“Plus, no worries about parking, and we get to enjoy our beverage of choice without having to worry about anything,” says his wife, Nancy, 56.

The state fair stop is added just for the 11-day run of the event. North Carolina's Amtrak trains — the Carolinian and the Piedmont — serve fans attending Carolina Panthers football games in Charlotte and foodies heading to and from the annual Barbecue Festival in Lexington.

These state-tailored runs are examples of an unfolding trend in regional transportation: States such as Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas are putting some of their scant transportation dollars into Amtrak's regional, intercity routes. The states' investment in these short-haul routes allow them to have a say in issues such as setting fare prices, as well as spending money on things like safety programs and marketing — and establishing special stops.

And once states have a seat at the table, they're coming up with innovative ways of chipping in: They pay for publicity, better parking at stations, free onboard Wi-Fi, better train cars and track improvements. With these critical investments, states hope to increase ridership and ease congested highways while offering people a transportation alternative.

Amtrak has long been a target for critics of government waste and inefficiency. A study last year by Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute found that Amtrak had received an annual taxpayer subsidy of $1.4 billion over a five-year period. Whether Amtrak's shift to short-haul routes will alter the fiscal picture remains to be seen, yet these new routes often compete against or substitute for scheduled air service. The short runs account for about half of Amtrak's traffic, and they are where Amtrak is showing the most robust growth.

In mid-October, Amtrak announced that it had reached first-time cost-sharing agreements with transportation agencies in 18 states for the states to pay a portion of operating costs on 28 Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles, excluding the Northeast Corridor.

Indeed, the numbers show some upward movement in Amtrak traffic. Its short lines carried 1,469,990 riders in August — a 5.1 percent increase over August 2012. Ticket revenue ran 7.2 percent above August a year ago.

The agency has been on a roll. Last year, it collected $2 billion in ticket revenue, up 7 percent from the previous year, from 31.2 million passengers, 3.5 percent more than the previous year. Both totals were records.

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