"America is getting into training, more and more every day," goes the catchy tune. "America is getting into training -- training the Amtrak way."
As Amtrak celebrates the 10th anniversary of its creation on May 1, 1971, new questions arise about whether America has gotten into "training" enough to justify the large federal subsidies it has enjoyed in the recent past -- over the $5 billion mark -- and promises to consume in the near future.
Questions have been raised before -- more and more every year, to paraphrase Amtrak's jingle -- but growing Amtrak deficits and new receptivity in Congress and throughout the country to the Reagan administration's budget-cutting efforts have made the debate more urgent.
The Reagan administration has asked Congress to approve a budget of $613 million for the National Rail Passenger Corp. -- Amtrak's full name -- for fiscal 1982, $380 million less than the Carter administration had proposed.
Amtrak President Alan S. Boyd has told Congress that the proposed funding level -- already approved by the Senate Commerce Committee -- would mean the dismantling on Oct. 1 of all its rail passenger service in 36 states, retaining service only on the Northeast Corridor. It also would require the layoff of 14,500 employes, Boyd maintains, with half of the new operating budget to go for required labor protection payments to laid-off workers.
Boyd's prediction is disputed by Federal Railroad Administrator Robert W. Blanchette. "Management's initial response to any cut is to come back with the most painful and unattractive set of circumstances imaginable," Blanchette, a former rail executive, said in an interview. "When the board of directors says, 'Retrench, cut, adjust,' management comes back with something that is so unpleasant that maybe the board of directors takes pause and stops there. Well, we're not going to stop there . . ."
If Congress goes along with the administration's request, Blanchette says that Boyd -- of whom he speaks highly -- will have to run Amtrak "like a business." That doesn't mean cutting out service in the 36 states that Boyd has predicted, hints Blanchette. "It means some innovation with fare increases, innovative marketing, taking a hard look at the fixed costs -- they may not be as fixed as one thinks -- and taking a look at the management structure [to] see whether that might not be a little bloated. It's a typical corporate management exercise," he says.
"I've never heard of a business that can't go from $1 billion a year to $613 million -- that's [still] a lot of dollars," he says.
Whatever happens to the rest of Amtrak, it appears clear that there won't be any abandonment of Amtrak service in the densely populated Northeast corridor between Washington, New York and Boston. The Northeast corridor is "a thing by itself," as Blanchette says. "The criterion there isn't what it costs, it's what it saves."
Counting, as Amtrak does, its service from New Ork and Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pa., the corridor accounts for about half of the total number of passengers carried by Amtrak each year. According to Amtrak, 10.8 million of the 21.2 million passengers it carried in fiscal 1980 were Northeast corridor travelers.
"I think that by and large the Northeast corridor has been a successful program, and it can continue to be successful as long as we don't get overly grandiose about it," the FRA administrator says. He defended as "very rational" the administration's proposed alterations in the 1985 operating objectives for trains on the corridor. He says elimination of two projects that would have cost $300 million will mean only that trips between Washington and New York in 1985 will be 10 minutes slower than planned, and those between New York and Boston would be 30 minutes slower.
The trains don't need to go 120 miles an hour as originally planned, Blanchette says. They need primarily to leave and to arrive when the timetable says they will leave and arrive. He has one other standard for train travel: "I think you ought to be able to hold a cup of coffee on the train."
Blanchette, a long-time Metroliner rider, had a compliment of sorts for the Metroliner, even though completion of its track improvement program is about two years away. "I used to say that on the Metroliner, to go to the restroom was an act of bravado and to order a cup of coffee was downright suicidal . . . I think we're making great strides there."
Ten years after its creation, and $5.1 billion in federal funds later, the government doesn't dispute that Amtrak has changed. It is a different -- reorganized and more modern -- entity with a bigger route system, more passengers, new equipment, more employes than it inherited:
The 1,275 aging, deteriorating cars it started with have been replaced by 1.633 new or completely rebuilt, all-electric cars. The 20-year-old locomotives Amtrak inherited have been replaced by modern equipment whose average age is 5 1/2 years. (Today, as part of its 10th anniversary celebration, Amtrak's equipment, including the double-decker Superliner cars used on some of its western routes, are on display at Union Station.)
Amtrak now operates about 240 trains serving 525 communities over 24,000 route miles, compared with 200 trains serving 380 communities over 23,000 route miles when it started. Amtrak carried 21.2 million passengers in fiscal 1980, 28 percent more than the 16.6 million it carried in 1972, the first full year of operation.
The system generated $428 million in revenues in fiscal 1980, compared with $163 million in 1972.
It has added significantly to its physical plant. Starting out without any owned stations or right-of-way, it now owns 650 miles of right-of-way, primarily in the Washington-Boston corridor, and numerous stations and maintenance and servicing facilities. It has committed more than $2.2 billion for the purchase and upgrading of these facilities and track.
A decentralized manual ticketing and reservations system has been replaced by a computerized central reservations system already being modernized.
Its direct employment has gone from an initial payroll of 1,500 -- mostly employes who paid other railroads to perform most operations -- to about 22,000.
In an interview, Amtrak president Boyd gave out other statistics: thanks to new equipment and improved track conditions, trains are on time about 80 percent of the time, up from 57 percent in 1978; the number of complaints is down 40 percent; the average speed of the trains is nearly 50 miles an hour. "That's not great, but it's a fairly good improvement" over the 43 mph speed in 1978, he says.
No one disputes his numbers, and nearly everyone agrees that there has been physical improvement in the Amtrak system. The question being asked is whether it is worth the public dollars -- $35 in subsidy every a time a passenger boards a train -- being put into it.
Blanchette says no. "It was originally conceived of as a for-profit, private corporation and its deficits have done nothing but grow," he says. "If you look at any one of a number of criteria for some of these trains, you cannot justify a billion dollar ticket for Amtrak."
Blanchette has his own set of statistics to match Boyd's. The figures concentrate not on Amtrak's improved performance but instead on its place in relation to other demands for government funds and whether it justifies its subsidy in terms of economic, energy conservation or other public benefits.
In energy terms, Blanchette says the trains, except on the high-density corridors, are less effective than buses as to passenger miles per gallon of fuel. And, in most parts of the country, he contends, Amtrak may be substituted for completely by buses, which serve 30 times the number of points served by the trains, or by the airlines which serve 650 airports.
If there were no other needs in the country, Amtrak could be looked at differently, he suggested, but it is "almost a luxury" in some parts of the country and should be required to make its contribution to the genral retrenchment of government spending.
In its plan for Amtrak, the government has not demanded specific changes but has suggested that Amtrak should meet 50 percent of its operating expenses -- not its capital costs -- out of fares. Amtrak has met that standard before, but not recently during its expansion phase.Last year, it collected 42 cents in revenue for every dollar in costs; by the end of the year, it expects to collect 44 cents for every dollar it spends and has projected 50 cents for next year. On some trains -- ones that Boyd says Amtrak is required by Congress to operate -- it collects as little as 17 cents for each dollar of expense; that means a subsidy of 83 percent.
Boyd agrees that Amtrak is not serving everyone -- Amtrak carries only 1 percent of the 15 percent of the public moving between cities on public transportation -- but he maintains that a good system is now in place for future growth. He disagrees with Blanchette's view that passenger demand hasn't kept up with Amtrak's system expansion. With many trains sold out already for the summer, Boyd contends that an equipment shortage hampers growth in passenger traffic.
"All in all, we're rather proud of what has been accomplished," he says, especially since Amtrak's managers necessarily operate on a year-to-year basis without any ability to plan because of the vagaries of the budget process.