Amtrak president Paul H. Reistrup will deliver a simple message on Capitol Hill today:
If the United States wants an intercity passenger rail service, "then its funding level should permit such a system to be developed and operated properly."
If not, "maybe we should eliminate it entirely."
That conclusion, in testimony prepared for a House hearing, describes a growing crisis faced by the National Railroad Passenger Corp., which took over a dying business in 1071 and was given a federal mandate for improvement.
Because of White House budget restraints under both Presidents Ford and Carter, according to Reistrup, Amtrak today is "being told to operate about 20 per cent more service than we are given the dollars for."
One consequence of this financial squeeze was a recent decision by the subsidized passenger corporation to reduce service at the end of this month, including the elimination of 22 Northeast Corridor trains.
Further cutbacks in service or elimination of routes now are being planned for soon after Jan. 1, based on the lack of action to date on an Amtrak request for additional appropriations in the year that started Oct. 1.
These cutbacks are creating confusion, coming at a time when Amtrak's board of directors and corporate planners have been charting a course of expansion rather than curtailment.
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And, Reistrup revealed in an inness has never been so good. In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. Amtrak carried a 19.2 million riders - a gain of nearly 6 per cent from the previous year.
Ridership along the heavily traveled Boston-Washington corridor rose more than 3 per cent to 11.1 million; ridership of short-distance trains rose more than 15 per cent and ridership of long-distance trains rose 5.5 per cent.
"We really got the thing going," said Reistrup, a former freight and passenger executive with the Illinois Central Gulf and Baltimore & Ohio railroads. Reistrup has logged about 70,000 miles of travel on Amtrak trains since becoming chief executive two and a half years ago. At that time, moral within the passenger service was at a low ebb and riders' complaints were beginning to mount.
Now, Amtrak faces what Reistrup called "counter productive" budget decisions from the federal government - with policymaking taking a back seat to budget-cutting.If such a course is followed for several years, inflation will continue to eat away Amtrak subsidies and management will have no choice but to make sharp cuts in service on an annual basis until nothing is left, he added.
At the root of the current crisis is a projected shortfall of $50 million in the current fiscal year. Directors of Amtrak have requested a supplemental appropriation of $56.5 million to prevent new cutbacks after Jan. 1 and to restore some of the trains now planned for elimination on Oct. 30.
However, the Carter administration's representative on Amtrak's board voted against the request for more money and subsequently dispatched a letter to Rep. John J. McFall (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, opposing new outlays.
Amtrak currently has an appropriation of $488.5 million to cover operating losses in fiscal 1973 compared with an initial request for $534.1 million and the administration's request for $500 million.
The McFall subcommittee failed to consider a supplemental appropriation for Amtrak at a recent meeting but Reistrup said yesterday he has been told that an effort will be made, before the House adjourns, to provide more funds.
Amtrak has been supported consistently in its budget requests by the House Commerce Subcommittee on Transportation, where Reistrup is scheduled to testify today. The full funding sought by Amtrak also has been supported in congressional budget committees but the appropriations committee "have come up short . . . they have been following the administration's lead," Reistrup will testify.
By not supporting additional funds, the Amtrak chief contends, administration budget officials of the "effectively supported the alternative, which is the elimination of trains."
Just the opposite course has been recommended by Amtrak's board, in a five-year plan for fiscal years 1978-1982 that was sent to President Carter and the Congress last week.
In a 177-page document, Amtrak project an increase in ridership to 26 million passengers by fiscal 1982. But the cost was estimated at $3.5 billion in operating subsidies over the five years (an average $695 million a year) and capital improvement grants of $1.05 billion ($210 million a year). Of the total, $357 million was attributed to a projection of inflation in costs.
Amtrak proposed the purchase of 353 new passenger cars, modernization of rail stations and maintenance facilities, upgrading of tracks in five states as well as along the Northeast corridor, and a thorough review of the national route system (the first since Amtrak was formed more than six years ago).