Monday, October 10, 2011

Amtrak More Popular and More At Risk Than Ever

MSNBC: It’s official: During its fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Amtrak carried more passengers than during any year in its four-decade history.

“The final figures will be released next week,” said Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm, “but we have reached and surpassed the 30-million mark.”

Expanded schedules, changing demographics and the hassles of air travel have boosted the appeal of train travel, say industry observers.

“We believe part of the increase is the improvement in the economy,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesperson in Amtrak’s Chicago office. “But part of it is also that people tried us as gas prices fluctuated and have decided to stay with us.”

In fact, U.S. train travel is enjoying a remarkable surge in popularity — everywhere, it seems, except in the halls of Congress. Even as Amtrak posts its best numbers ever, the federal funding that keeps it alive is on the verge of being slashed. In May, The Wall Street Journal reported that Amtrak officials were projecting an operating loss of $506 million for this fiscal year, up from a loss of $419.9 million last year.

Last month, a House appropriations subcommittee proposed cutting Amtrak’s operating budget by 60 percent — from $561 million in 2011 to $227 million in 2012 — along with a 2.6 percent cut to its $923 million capital budget. By comparison, the proposed Senate budget for Amtrak calls for $544 million in operating funds and $937 million in capital funds. That works out to a total of $1.5 billion compared to $1.1 billion in the House, both of which are considered tentative as all federal spending is subject to a temporary bill that authorizes funding only through Nov. 18.

“The House Republicans seem to have targeted state-supported rail,” said Kulm, referring to the 15 programs in which Amtrak partners with state governments to provide local train service. “That would mean the loss, potentially, of 150 trains a day.”

That may sound like hyperbole but it’s not far from the truth. This summer, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, proposed legislation that would open the door to private competition on state-supported routes and other services now managed by Amtrak.

“After 40 years of costly and wasteful Soviet-style operations under Amtrak, this proposal encourages private sector competition, investment and operations in U.S. passenger rail service,” said Mica in a statement. “The nation cannot afford to continue throwing money away on this highly subsidized, ineffective disaster.

Fiery words aside, Amtrak will continue running in the short term with a combined operations and capital budget of almost $1.5 billion. “They’ll avoid service cuts on this go-round,” said Ross Capon, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a rail-advocacy group. “But the fact is Amtrak is going to be forced to lay people off and cut back on some of the heavy maintenance that’s required.”

Which, in turn, could make Amtrak’s new ridership record one for the ages.

“Those state-supported routes are a huge chunk of our ridership,” said Kulm. “That’s where the largest increases in ridership are occurring.”

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