Amtrak Urged to Bolster Service in Northeast

Amtrak's Washington to Boston routes are increasingly popular, but need maintenance. Some want Amtrak to spend more on heavily traveled routes, and less to subsidize service in rural parts of the country.

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(Soundbite of a train whistle)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This a little bit north of the Capitol, there's a train station that marks one end of the busiest passenger train route in the country. About 700,000 people ride daily on the Northeaster Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston. The announcer, the conductor, calls out stops along the way in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. So it's a successful route, but dissatisfaction with the way Amtrak operates the route has led to a proposal that could affect service nationwide.

Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON: Amtrak may own and control the tracks and signals that run through the largest cities of the Northeast. But it's the local commuter trains that make the most use of them.

Unidentified Woman #1: Boarding at truck number three with (unintelligible) street.

SOLOMON: Some 200,000 New Jersey transit riders depend on the Northeast Corridor to get to work - passengers like James Loadholt(ph) of Maplewood.

Mr. JAMES LOADHOLT: The delay is always do the Amtrak. And it happens at least two times a week, sometimes three times a week.

SOLOMON: He has the sympathy of the director of New Jersey Transit, George Warrington, who says minutes matter on commuter rail.

Mr. GEORGE WARRINGTON (Director, New Jersey Transit): We run trains during the peak periods every two and a half minutes. That requires an absolute and total focus on attention to detail.

SOLOMON: Warrington says that includes everything from when you trim trees, to investing in truck repair, to traffic control. He headed Amtrak during the late 1990s, so he understands how difficult it is for the company to properly run the Northeast Corridor.

Mr. WARRINGTON: When you're stretched, and when you're under capitalized, and in many respects under siege - politically and otherwise - I can understand how difficult it is to focus on local issues, because local issues exist in 45 states.

SOLOMON: Quality rail service drives growth in the megalopolis that stretches from Boston to Washington. So state officials and a group of powerful corporate leaders are supporting a new plan developed by the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. The plan's author, Martin Robbins, suggests placing control of the rail corridor in the hands of a federal-state partnership.

Mr. MARTIN ROBBINS (Director Voorhees Transportation Center, Rutgers University): The Northeast Corridor's are a national asset, and Amtrak is a quasi-private corporation with a board that doesn't really have any institutional connection to the Northeast Corridor, that there isn't any certainty that this board from administration to administration is going to care one wit about what the Northeast Corridor states think.

SOLOMON: Robbins is proposing the U.S. Department of Transportation hire Amtrak to continue operating intra-city passenger service, but stripped the company of planning, investment and traffic control decisions. The chairman of the Amtrak board of directors, David Laney, says the company has greatly improved the rail line in recent years, and he would happily do more if more funding were provided.

Mr. DAVID LANEY (Chairman, Amtrak Board of Directors): It would be much more effective for all the interests along on the Northeast Corridor if, for once, we were aligned and we spoke to Washington with one voice. The Voorhees report does not advance the ball in that regard.

SOLOMON: If Amtrak were to lose control of the Northeast Corridor, passenger rail service would be affected nationwide. It's the cash cow of the system. Amtrak charges higher ticket prices, actually makes a profit and spends the money to prop up train service in rural areas. Imo Franco(ph) - a former assistant secretary of transportation during President Bush's first term - says funding for rails should be shifted to regionally-controlled networks, especially in the Midwest.

Mr. IMO FRANCO (Former Assistant Secretary of Transportation): It's a classic case of where there ought to be great intercity passenger rail service between Cincinnati and Indianapolis and Chicago and Milwaukee. And there is service, but it's not what it should be. And we ought to be spending money on that. But probably, it would not benefit the rural states. It would put a train in the middle of the night, in, you know, Montana at risk - no question.

SOLOMON: That kind of realignment of the nation's rail system would take a political realignment in Congress. The northeast delegation - which has traditionally allied itself with rural states to keep Amtrak afloat - would have to form a new coalition of urban regions to change how passenger rail is funded and run.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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