Amtrak officials point to their growing ridership — a 36 percent increase since 2000 — as proof that people depend upon intercity trains, particularly as gas prices climb. Last fiscal year, 28.7 million people rode Amtrak’s 300 daily trains. Ridership this fiscal year is on pace to set another annual record, according to Amtrak.
Much of its losses stem from its 15 long-distance routes, which needed $434 million in federal subsidies to operate last fiscal year. Critics in Congress also have questioned Amtrak’s management, asking, for example, how an employee with a $21,000 salary earned $149,000 in overtime last fiscal year.
Amtrak president Joseph Boardman told a congressional committee in April that he found such overtime payments “outrageous” but that most went to maintenance crews in the busy Northeast Corridor, where they had to work nights and weekends, times when trains operate less frequently.
“I think even Amtrak’s most ardent supporters would agree it’s facing major challenges,” said Robert Puentes, a Brookings Institution fellow. “We need to figure out how to make it more accountable and transparent, [to ensure] that its money is being made in the smartest way and that it’s being run as efficiently as possible.”
Tunnels that carry Amtrak passengers and local commuter trains into New York’s Penn Station from New Jersey and Long Island become so congested during peak travel times that one breakdown can send delays rippling along the East Coast for hours.
Relieving such choke points won’t be cheap. Amtrak’s plan to increase capacity into and through Manhattan would cost $13.5 billion. Another plan to repair and replace aging bridges and tunnels while relieving congestion throughout the Northeast Corridor is projected to cost $52.3 billion over the next 20 years.
Boardman, the Amtrak president, said his company’s critics make a “great hullabaloo” over its government support, but the system’s revenue covers 85 percent of its overall operating costs. The Acela Express makes a 40 percent profit, and the other Northeast Corridor trains break even, he said. Government subsidies are necessary for almost all capital improvements.
Eliminating Amtrak’s most heavily subsidized long-distance trains would cut off people in rural towns that have no bus or train service and are long drives from an airport, Boardman said. Rising gas prices and growing traffic congestion on roads shows that people across the country will need trains as another option, he said.
“The real question is if this nation is going to decide as a policy question are we going to have long-distance trains and provide mobility across the country?” Boardman said.
Limits on the system
Passengers at Union Station recently said Amtrak is reliable and usually on time. Their only complaint: When trains are delayed, Amtrak employees often don’t explain why.
James O’Keefe, 32, of Baltimore, said he pays about $3 more each way to ride Amtrak to his Coast Guard contracting job in Washington several times a week because the coaches are nicer than MARC cars. He avoids the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, where a fender-bender can turn a 45-minute drive into two to three hours.
“I can call my wife and say, ‘I’m on the train. I’ll be home in a half-hour,’ as opposed to
‘I’m sitting in traffic again,’ ” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe said he wonders how many people would ride a truly high-speed train when even the higher-speed Acela Express is priced out of most commuters’ reach.
“It’d be nice,” O’Keefe said, “but I think [ticket] pricing drives most people.”
Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staleysaid Amtrak’s problems stem from having to share too little track with too many trains. Many of the delays that passengers on MARC’s Amtrak-operated Penn Line have faced, she said, resulted from the railroad working to replace old track while trying to keep trains running.
Swaim-Staley credited Amtrak for recently agreeing to run shorter but more frequent Penn Line trains. Doing so helped MARC add 1,000 seats a day, she said.
Those extra seats may come at a price.
“Every train we add,” Swaim-Staley said, “puts more pressure on their system.”