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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Amtrak on Track

Air Date: Week of

Passengers are flocking to Amtrak, thanks in part to high gasoline prices. And as Kathleen O’Neil reports, soaring energy costs are also convincing Congressional leaders to consider giving the nation’s passenger rail system new support and funding.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The price of gasoline and skyrocketing costs of airplane tickets have more and more people riding the rails. The increase in ridership and expenses for running the trains, has both houses of Congress, for the first time in years, on board to up the amount of federal funding for America’s passenger railroad. Kathleen O’Neil has our report.


O’NEIL: At Union Station in downtown Washington, a line of passengers wait to board a mid-morning train. Some are heading on day trips, others have small carry-on suitcases for longer visits. Bonnie from Kalamazoo, Michigan is one of them.

BONNIE: Well, it’s only the second time I’ve traveled on Amtrak. I’m doing it because of the convenience and really the price too.


O’NEIL: Some 28 million people will climb on board Amtrak trains across the country this year. That’s 11 percent more than in 2007. Karina Romero is an Amtrak spokesperson. She says the company set a record for most passengers ever carried in one month this past July, with 2.7 million riders.

ROMERO: To see double-digit increases month over month is unheard of in Amtrak history. We attribute about half of the increase to the price of gas alone, and the other half to travelers just looking for an alternative.

CONDUCTOR: Tickets please.


O’NEIL: Amtrak is federally owned. But for many years, the railway has been the target of budget conservatives who prefer to see it privatized and become self-sufficient. Without adequate subsidies from Congress, Amtrak has struggled. It loses more than seven hundred million dollars annually and is more than three billion dollars in debt.

CONDUCTOR: Attention ladies and gentlemen. Momentarily we will be arriving at our next station stop. … our next station stop. Please take a moment to look around and gather your belongings. … New Carrolton. New Carrolton in 15 minutes…


O’NEIL: Amtrak was created by Congress in 1971 to take money-losing passenger rail lines off the hands of private companies. It continues to lose money on long-distance routes which run through rural areas such as Montana and Oklahoma. Highly populated corridor routes come closest to breaking even. These include lines in California and the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. Rail supporters say that highways and air travel have always had federal support. Amtrak’s Karina Romero says transportation is worth investing in whether the routes make money or not.

ROMERO: There's no passenger rail system anywhere in the world that generates a profit. It's seen more as a public service, like highways or you know the FAA when it comes to airports. So no, we're never going to actually generate a profit, but we certainly have healthy revenues, particularly this year on certain routes.
O’NEIL: The same conditions that have led people to abandon their gas-guzzlers and ride trains in record numbers are also making members of Congress more inclined to fund Amtrak. At a hearing in May, Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, who chairs the House transportation committee, urged his colleagues to increase their support for passenger rail.
OBERSTAR: Instead of keeping Amtrak on life-support, as it has been from year to year, we have a proposal here that will give vigorous life to Amtrak…

O’NEIL: The House did pass a bill to allow spending more than 14 billion dollars on Amtrak over the next four years. The Senate passed its own version, which would give the company about 11 billion dollars over six years. A bipartisan committee has been charged with putting together a compromise version. But a crowded Congressional calendar and a veto threat from President Bush will make passage of a bill an uphill battle.

Even long-time critics, like Florida Republican Congressman John Mica support the bills. Mica says rising fuel prices are one reason. Another is that the House’s bill includes studying some privatization. It asks outside companies for proposals to create a high-speed rail service that would go between New York City and Washington D.C. in two hours or less.

MICA: I think there’s a tremendous interest in developing high-speed rail systems that work in the United States. They’re so common-place now in Europe, many parts of Asia and the rest of the world, the United States is almost becoming a third-world country when it comes to NOT having high-speed, efficient transit alternatives.

O’NEIL: But building the separate rail line the high-speed service could cost 30 to 50 billion dollars. Amtrak president Alex Kummant says the money might be better spent on improvements that would offer more immediate and widespread increases in speed and efficiency.

KUMMANT: Is that really where we would put that amount of capital, given the rail passenger needs in the country? And the answer may still be yes, but it might also be that we should really expand an electrified corridor south to Atlanta, that we should spend money on a half-a-dozen or a dozen 110-mph corridors like Chicago to Detroit… 50 billion dollars goes a long way.

O’NEIL: The National Association of Railroad Passengers director Ross Capon says he’s glad Congress has come around to supporting Amtrak. But after so many years of bare-bones funding, he still won’t be convinced of the change until Congress shows him the money.

CAPON: So far, the early indications for fiscal year ’09 is that the increase in funding is going to be very modest indeed. But hopefully, we’ll get a Congress and a White House next year that is able to do a lot more.

O’NEIL: Amtrak has been a topic of conversation in the race to the White House. Senator Joe Biden is one of Amtrak's biggest fans, and Senator Barack Obama also supports giving it long-term funding. Senator John McCain is on the opposite side of the tracks. He proposes cutting Amtrak’s budget and privatizing the service, which he calls inefficient. Meanwhile, rail supporters hope energy concerns and Amtrak’s rising popularity will sustain the momentum in Congress and help the struggling service stay on track.


O’NEIL: For Living on Earth, I’m Kathleen O’Neil in Washington.



Amtrak's website

National Association of Railroad Passengers


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