Amtrak rolls on 40 years later, destination still uncertain

09/12/2011 3:09 PM

10/31/2011 11:42 PM

WASHINGTON — In 1958, an Interstate Commerce Commission report predicted that the passenger train would vanish by 1970, the victim of a traveling public whose affection had shifted to cars and airplanes.

But the passenger train refused to die.

More than 40 years later, Amtrak is still rolling along, even outlasting the federal agency that predicted the passenger train's demise. Its ridership is growing — up 37 percent from 2000 — and it has many friends in Congress and staunch allies in the White House.

"We're rediscovering the railroad mode," said Gil Carmichael, a former head of the Federal Railroad Administration and a prominent Republican supporter of Amtrak.

However, Amtrak has struggled for survival nearly every year since its first trains left the station on May 1, 1971. Now it's caught in the middle of the fight in Washington to cut federal budget deficits and spending. Some lawmakers want to eliminate it altogether. Others want to turn over pieces of its 22,000-mile network to private operators, an effort that some Amtrak supporters say could spell the end of the national passenger rail network.

Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida, the chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, introduced legislation in June to end what he calls Amtrak's "Soviet-style" monopoly on passenger trains and let private companies bid to operate its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, between Boston and Washington. Mica also thinks the private sector is better suited than Amtrak is to build a new high-speed rail line in the Northeast and operate its network of short- and long-distance corridors throughout the country.

"By giving the private sector the opportunity to bring its resources and expertise to the table, we can lower costs, increase efficiency and improve high-speed and intercity passenger rail service across the country," Mica said.

Several companies have expressed interest in bidding, including Britain's Virgin Trains and Veolia Transportation, which operates commuter rail systems in Boston and Miami.

"We'd be interested in any feasible project," Virgin Trains spokesman Arthur Leathley said.

However, these companies would have to negotiate with freight railroads for track access, and it's likely that they'd still require operating subsidies.

"It's going to be some time before we can eliminate these subsidies, but I think we can drive the subsidies down by having an efficient operator," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation Committee's railroads panel and a co-sponsor of Mica's bill.

Mica's proposal faces a tepid reception from Amtrak's supporters in the Democratic majority Senate.

"If there's a public-private partnership to help finance it, that's all right," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. "But the control has to rest, in my view, in the hands of those who represent the public. I'll fight as hard as I can to keep it that way."

Lautenberg is one of 19 senators who signed a letter to the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee requesting $2.2 billion for Amtrak in fiscal 2012.

In late August, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood committed nearly $750 million in federal grants to the Northeast Corridor, including money to rebuild tracks for future 186 mph trains and update the line's Depression-era electrical supply and signal systems.

To Amtrak's supporters, the money isn't misplaced: Amtrak is on pace to carry a record 30 million passengers this year, up from 20 million in 2000. With $4 a gallon gasoline, on top of increased airport delays and security hassles, ridership is up in most corridors.

"All of a sudden, the era of cheap energy is over," said Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. "If we stay auto dependent, we won't be competitive."

But while countries from China to Brazil to oil-rich Saudi Arabia invest big time in passenger trains, Amtrak's place in U.S. transportation policy is far from assured.

The Carter administration eliminated thousands of miles from Amtrak's network. The Reagan administration wanted to sell it. George W. Bush proposed shifting more of the cost to states. The current Republican-led House wants to cut its funding dramatically.

A House Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee proposal would shift $1.5 billion from Amtrak and high-speed rail to Midwest flood relief.

The House Transportation Committee's draft of a six-year transportation funding bill proposes cutting Amtrak's federal subsidy by 25 percent during the next two fiscal years.

But if more than $36 billion in Amtrak subsidies over the past 40 years seems like a hefty price tag, know that the federal government spent more than $40 billion on highways last year alone.

"Everything that's been built in the history of the country has been built with government involvement," Sclar said. "Amtrak was always sort of a stepchild that no one wanted."

In the years after World War II, Americans deserted trains for highways and airports funded by the federal government. As their business eroded and finances decayed, railroads lobbied the government hard for permission to drop passenger trains.

Congress gave them Amtrak: a federally owned, privately operated corporation that would relieve them of their obligation to operate passenger trains, though the trains would still run on their tracks. It would make money eventually, Congress was told.

Because it hasn't, Amtrak's critics brand it a failure. But Sclar said that was a false promise.

"There isn't a single passenger rail system in the world that makes money," he said.

In Amtrak's network, only the Northeast Corridor generates enough revenue to cover its operating costs. Amtrak's long-distance trains — with storied names such as the Empire Builder, the Southwest Chief and the Sunset Limited — generate the largest losses.

Many short-distance corridors receive state funding to cover their costs. California, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Washington state kick in their own subsidies for Amtrak to run frequent trains between city pairs such as Los Angeles-San Diego, Chicago-St. Louis, St. Louis-Kansas City, Raleigh-Charlotte and Seattle-Portland.

The trains are slow. Most of Amtrak's trains can go no faster than 79 mph on tracks that are busy with freight. Even the Northeast Corridor's maximum speed of 150 mph falls well short of the advanced passenger-train networks in Europe, Japan and China.

In his State of the Union speech this year, President Barack Obama set a goal of giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years. Much of the $10.5 billion his administration has allocated to date for passenger rail will benefit Amtrak.

"It sounds good, but not everybody needs high-speed rail," Shuster said. "The place to start is the Northeast Corridor."

Carmichael, who's advised four presidents on transportation issues, said that while it was true that private companies would like to operate the Northeast Corridor, "it needs millions and millions of dollars spent on it" to replace aging bridges and tunnels and buy new cars and locomotives.

Mica's Northeast Corridor proposal "is not very well thought out," Carmichael said.

Mica and Shuster say they support high-speed rail. They just don't think that Amtrak should have exclusive rights to build and operate it.

"They've been doing it, and they've done a pretty lousy job," Shuster said. "We need to have a different approach to passenger rail."

Their legislation would transfer ownership of the Northeast Corridor to the Transportation Department so that private companies could compete to operate it and build the new high-speed line. Although Amtrak could participate in the bidding, Mica and Shuster are convinced that the private sector could do a better job in less time, and at a lower cost.

"If anyone is holding their breath for Congress to approve $117 billion for Amtrak's 30-year plan, they're going to turn blue," Mica said.

But not everyone is on board with his idea.

"This plan is a death knell for passenger rail service from coast to coast," said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee.

In a letter to Mica dated June 21, Joseph Boardman, Amtrak's president and chief executive, warned that Amtrak's long-distance routes could face elimination.

Boardman wrote that Mica's plan "would increase public funding requirements on other routes, either requiring greater operating support from federal or state governments or eventual termination of services."

Sclar, a privatization expert, cites Great Britain as a cautionary tale. In the 1990s, the government of Conservative Prime Minister John Major sold off pieces of the national British Rail system to private companies. Costs and fares soared, and safety suffered.

A recent British government report found that the country's privatized rail system is less efficient than nationalized systems in France, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

But Virgin's Leathley said his company had doubled the number of customers in six years to 28 million, and it pays the British government $160 million a year in revenue.

"That couldn't have happened without privatization," he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has a long way to catch up to other countries in rail investment. According to the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, China has 800 high-speed train sets in operation, France has 600, Japan has 450 and Spain has 300. The U.S. has 20.

Carmichael, the former federal railroad administrator, offers a solution: State and federal government, freight railroads and Amtrak should partner to improve the rail lines already in place. Rather than build new lines at great expense, he advocates upgrading existing tracks and signals to increase capacity and speed for both passenger and freight trains.

He points to an Illinois project as a successful example. The state-federal effort will boost top speeds on Amtrak's Chicago-St. Louis corridor from 79 mph to 110 mph. The project has the backing of the freight carrier that owns the track, Union Pacific.

Carmichael said it was easy to forget that the country had an extensive passenger train system 100 years ago, and he's convinced that public officials and business leaders are awakening to the idea of bringing it back.

"This century, we're going to see a real renaissance in passenger rail," he said. "We just haven't done it the right way yet."

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