The Patriot-News, Gary Dwight Miller/AP

Amtrak Business Increases, But Can it Handle it?

August 29, 2008 12:15 PM
by Denis Cummings
High gas prices have led to an increase in Amtrak passengers, but the government-owned passenger train line might not be capable of handling the increased ridership.

Amtrak Struggles With Increased Business

Amtrak reported 2.8 million passengers in July, up 13.9 percent from last year and the busiest month ever, the Chicago Sun-Times reported this month. The increase has further exposed Amtrak’s undersized fleet and crumbling infrastructure, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Trains are overcrowded and outdated. Due to a lack of funds, Amtrak hasn’t bought a new train car since the mid-90s, and many cars sit unused because they need refurbishment.

Trains are also frequently late, due primarily to the tracks. Amtrak owns only a small percentage of its tracks and must share routes with other passenger lines and freight trains. The tracks, bridges and tunnels are in bad condition, forcing trains to run at reduced speeds.

Billions of dollars are needed to for track repair—Amtrak estimates that $5 billion is needed in the northeast corridor alone—but Amtrak doesn’t have the money to do so. It had been losing money since its creation in 1971 and is completely reliant on the government for funding.

Over the past year, as ridership increased, Congress has increased funding to Amtrak. In June, the Senate approved $15 billion over five years by a veto-proof margin of 311–104. President George W. Bush had threatened a veto because it doesn’t hold Amtrak accountable for its spending.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has proposed a bill that would transfer about $400 million from the Highway Trust Fund and allow Amtrak to raise $2.8 billion in bonds, according to the Sun-Times. The “Train CARS Act” is still being debated in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Californians will be voting this November on a $10 billion bond issue that would help fund a high-speed rail line running from Sacramento to San Diego that could travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two and a half hours. If successful, the rail system, which would be run by the state of California and not be affiliated with Amtrak, may inspire other states to build their own high-speed rails, reports USA Today.

Background: Amtrak

Amtrak, officially known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, was created in 1971 when the government decided to buy many independent passenger lines and form a national network. It had hoped that Amtrak would become self-sufficient within two years, but that was not the case. In its history, Amtrak has received over $30 billion in federal aid while losing more than $700 million annually.

In 1997, under heavy criticism from conservative Congressmen, Amtrak vowed to be self-sufficient by 2003. It failed to meet that goal and continued needing government subsidies. In 2007, Congress agreed to fund Amtrak without demanding that it become self-sufficient.

“Every country in the world virtually that has rail service, rail passenger service, has some subsidy for it,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, (D-N.D.). “We subsidize most transportation services in this country. I don't have a problem with doing that.”

Opinion & Analysis: The Presidential election

The future of Amtrak may depend on the 2008 Presidential election. Republican nominee John McCain has regularly opposed increasing Amtrak funding during his time in the Senate. He, like many opponents of Amtrak funding, want it to become self-sufficient by cutting money-losing routes and focusing on busy commuter routes in the Northeast and West Coast. “Amtrak should be restructured to eliminate its reliance on the American taxpayers and to allow for its privatization,” he said in 2002.

Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, is a staunch supporter and regular rider of Amtrak. Biden even mentioned Amtrak in his Democratic National Convention speech. “I profoundly disagree with the direction that John wants to take the country,” he said, “from Afghanistan to Iraq. From Amtrak to veterans.”

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