As Gas Prices Rise, Trains See Record Ridership

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With record gas prices, traffic congestion and airline aggravation, passenger trains are filling up. Amtrak reports ridership and revenues are at an all-time high. Don Itzkoff, former deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, talks with NPR's Scott Simon.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a disease brings down chocolate and a way of life in Brazil, but first there is at least one beneficiary of record gas prices, traffic congestion and airline aggravation, and that's passenger trains.

Ridership and revenues on Amtrak are at an all-time high throughout the United States, especially in the Northeast Corridor, and earlier this week, the House of Representatives voted to boost funding for Amtrak and high-speed rail.

Don Itzkoff was deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration from 1994 to 1999. He's a partner with a Washington, D.C., law firm and joins us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DON ITZKOFF (Former Deputy Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration): Pleasure to be here.

SIMON: You see conditions as being favorable for rail traffic in the U.S. now?

Mr. ITZKOFF: Well, in the world we live in today, Americans are looking for an alternative, and they're looking for trains.

SIMON: Are there enough trains?

Mr. ITZKOFF: There aren't enough trains for people that want to ride them. As you said, Amtrak is experiencing record ridership, and the issue is whether federal investment, public investment overall to enable a passenger rail system that people want to ride can be here.

SIMON: Now as I understand it, freight lines actually own the tracks, and they will put their own interests first, understandably from the vantage point of the bananas that have to get someplace. Is that conceivably a conflict, if there's increased rail passenger traffic?

Mr. ITZKOFF: Well outside the Northeast Corridor and one other location in the country, Amtrak trains do travel on existing freight rail lines. So certainly the conflict there is readily evident, and of course right now, with increasing demand on the freight rail system, there really is a crunch on capacity.

So this can be a win-win. If there is an investment in rail infrastructure, we can have the capacity that we need both for new, high-speed train service and increased freight capacity that we're going to need to be competitive in the 21st century.

SIMON: Do you seen private companies trying to get back into the business?

Mr. ITZKOFF: Right now, Amtrak has a preferred right of access onto the freight system. So it is the provider of choice for intercity travel. One of the interesting facets of the recent bill that the House of Representatives passed is that it would open up the potential for other entrants to come in and make the case that they could also operate the service as well.

SIMON: Do you think there's so much increased interest in rail traffic that a private company would say well, I could make money doing this?

Mr. ITZKOFF: Well, passenger rail service is not for those looking to make money in the business because the capital expenses are so high and the operating expenses are such that every rail operation requires a public investment of some sort. So it really has to be about a public-private partnership.

SIMON: Every summer, you get Americans that come back from, let's say, France or Italy, and they'll say why can't we have a high-speed rail system in the United States like they do there.

Mr. ITZKOFF: As you say, if you travel to Europe or Japan or other countries around the world, you see high-speed rail systems that travel over 200 miles an hour directly from downtown to downtown, no crossings where highways intersect, dedicated rights of way, just outstanding service, and people have looked at that for the United States and said why not here?

But the key isn't how fast the trains go, it's how quickly you get from point to point. So here for cities 250 miles apart, trains that go 100 miles an hour would be equivalent or even faster to airline travel. So that's what people are looking at in corridors outside the Northeast.

I will say that California is also exploring the potential for a true high-speed rail service between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but we have a way to go before that can happen.

SIMON: Donald Itzkoff is a former deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. Thank you very much.

Mr. ITZKOFF: Thank you.

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