Amtrak faces congestion and criticism as it celebrates 40 years of service

Correction: Earlier versions of this article about Amtrak’s 40th anniversary incorrectly said that Amtrak operates and dispatches commuter trains for Virginia Railway Express. VRE trains are operated by Keolis Rail Services America and are dispatched on tracks owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads. This version has been corrected.

On a recent business trip to New York, Acela Express passenger Sean Westcott rode the fastest train in the United States, but it slowed from 110 to 30 miles per hour in a curvy Baltimore tunnel built just after the Civil War.

Westcott, a computer systems administrator who lives in Prince William County, said he prefers the three-hour train ride to the stress and longer travel times of driving and flying. But he’s not so sure about Amtrak’s $117 billion plan to build and operate trains that could one day speed between Washington and New York — part of its most congested and only profitable route — in 96 minutes.

“They probably need more money to stabilize the infrastructure they have now,” Westcott, 42, said before boarding at Union Station, “and then start working on improvements.”

There lies the railroad’s struggle. As Amtrak celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, it is working to replace aging tunnels, bridges and track while also expanding to meet future demand, particularly between Washington and Boston. Its plan for “next generation” service in the Northeast Corridor got a major boost this week, when the Obama administration announced Amtrak would receive $450 million in the latest round of high-speed rail funding.

Amtrak said it will use the money to upgrade electrical power and tracks to speed up trains on a 24-mile section between Morrisville, Pa., and New Brunswick, N.J., — part of a larger plan to double Acela Express service over the next decade to supplement jammed highways and crowded airspace in the busy Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak passengers aren’t the only ones with much at stake in the railroad’s rehabilitation and growth. In addition to the Northeast Corridor serving one-third of Amtrak’s 75,000 daily passengers, it carries about 850,000 weekday riders on commuter trains that Amtrak operates or dispatches.

Those include the Penn Line of the Maryland Area Regional Commuter service. Seven freight railroads also operate on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor tracks.

The Obama administration also awarded $22 million to Maryland to begin work on an $800 million plan to replace and widen a 105-year-old Amtrak bridge that MARC trains use between Perryville and Havre de Grace. Train traffic on the bridge is expected to more than double over the next two decades, Maryland officials said.

The entire Northeast Corridor, which is so congested that trains heading into Manhattan are sometimes threaded 150 seconds apart, must be upgraded and expanded to handle the growth projected in the economically vital Northeast, Amtrak officials say.

Within two decades, they say, nearly 3,300 trains — 40 percent more than today — will need to travel the corridor daily, leaving many sections of track operating at full capacity. Amtrak has proposed building separate tracks for high-speed trains, a proposal that would require buying expensive land along most of a route that borders back yards and businesses.

Some transportation leaders in Congress say unprofitable Amtrak has proven it can’t run a cost-efficient rail line, no matter how fast it is.

John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Amtrak should determine routes but leave operating trains — and all construction and running of any high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor — to private companies.

“As long as Amtrak controls it,” Mica said, “you end up with a Soviet-style operation with Congress in the middle and the most mediocre level of service you can possibly have.”

Few profits, but growing ridership

Amtrak’s supporters say profits were never its mission.

Congress established the railroad company in 1971 to relieve struggling freight rail companies of their money-losing passenger service. Since then it has weathered decades of debate about its costs and benefits. Critics say its repeated operating losses and inability to pay for its own rehabilitation and expansion make it too expensive for government subsidies, particularly when it carries about one-half of 1 percent of all intercity trips annually.

Amtrak supporters say the system has suffered from being cash-starved for decades. They say its federal subsidy — $1.48 billion this fiscal year — is no different from highways maintained with gas tax revenues or airlines that rely on federal air traffic controllers.

“They’ve never been invested in to the point where they’ve gotten beyond a basic type of network,” said Art Guzzetti, of the American Public Transportation Association. “I think they’d agree it’s not that they’ve taken what they inherited in 1971 and turned it into a gem. They’ve kept the system together and kept it working nationally.”

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.”

Costly improvements

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.”

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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