Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why passenger rail—and Amtrak—are vital to America

Written by  Joe Boardman, president and CEO, Amtrak
Why passenger rail—and Amtrak—are vital to America JOSEPH M. CALISI

When the private freight railroads desperately wanted out of the passenger rail business, Congress saw the need for a single national passenger rail service provider with a mission to improve passenger rail service that could operate an interconnected network of routes.

Thus, Amtrak began operations in 1971 and then took ownership of much of the Northeast Corridor in 1976.

To the surprise of many, and despite chronic underfunding, we’ve made a go of it. In 2011, Amtrak is celebrating 40 years as America’s Railroad. Since 2000, Amtrak ridership is up by 36% and we have set annual ridership records in seven of the last eight fiscal years. This year we will exceed 30 million passengers for the first time ever.

We’ve also put our financial house in order. In fiscal year 2010, Amtrak collected a record $1.74 billion in ticket revenue and we recovered 76% of operating costs from the farebox alone, more than any other passenger rail carrier in the country. If all revenue sources are included, we cover 85% of our operating costs with non-federal dollars—and we have cut our debt in half since 2002.

In the 10 years since the introduction of 150 mph high speed Acela Express service on the Northeast Corridor, the Amtrak share of the air/rail market in the region has increased exponentially. On each of its major segments (New York-Washington and New York-Boston), Amtrak now carries more passengers than all of the airlines combined.

Elsewhere in the country, Amtrak has become an ever more desirable option for travel choice, offering travelers a frequent, fast, reliable, efficient, and environmentally sound alternative to airports and congested highways. And we are an important component of any serious plan to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and meet growing demand for passenger rail service, support economic recovery, and fuel the next generation of growth.

Over the years we have been the leader in regular passenger and high speed rail, and continue to be so today by providing our extensive knowledge and experience to state partners and commuter agencies throughout the country. We are also acting to improve our current and future services with new equipment buys of electric locomotives for the Northeast Corridor and a variety of single-level cars for our long-distance services. And we are advancing our plans for next-generation 220 mph high-speed service with trains operating on a new two-track corridor resulting in a trip time of about three hours between Washington and Boston.

Amtrak’s current network of high speed services in the Northeast Corridor, short-distance corridor services run in partnership with the states, and overnight long-distance services spanning the nation is a solid base on which to build a truly 21st Century national intercity passenger rail system. America needs a clear national vision for this network and strategies for improving and expanding intercity passenger rail services where such service can advance key national priorities like congestion relief, transportation safety, energy-efficiency, environmental protection, and sustainable development.

In a nation as big as the United States, not all travel markets will require the same levels of service. In some cases, high speed, very frequent rail service may be necessary to create a viable alternative to existing travel options, while conventional intercity service may be more appropriate for other corridors where the market may be smaller. However, in order for intercity passenger rail to become a viable travel alternative to the nation’s highway and aviation systems, it needs to be accessible and well-connected to final destinations through local transit options. Developed corridors will need to be connected into a coherent national network.

Key to all of this, of course, is money. Federal intercity passenger rail development funding is essential to sustaining and improving the current network. The best strategy to fund high speed and intercity passenger rail investment is one that establishes a dedicated source of reliable, predictable, and multiyear funds to support capital grants to both Amtrak and the states.

It is imperative that Amtrak and other federal rail programs be integrated into a comprehensive and truly multi-modal surface transportation authorization bill. Congress is already working on this bill, and I recommend it include the following top five priorities: provide dedicated, multiyear funding for intercity and high-speed rail; establish a national investment strategy; create a clear and leading role for Amtrak; ensure coordinated corridor planning and project execution; and address liability and insurance issues.

I am convinced that we stand at a moment of real opportunity. America needs to reduce its dependence on foreign oil supplies, and the development of rail—freight and passenger—does just that. Federal spending is a subject of serious review, and concerns about the national debt presage a period of financial austerity. Balancing this is the need for economic recovery, job creation, and a corresponding demand for investment in the infrastructure that will support recovery, reverse the deterioration of the nation’s supporting transportation networks, and fuel the next generation of growth, while addressing pervasive and worsening problems such as airport and highway congestion and environmental conditions.

Amtrak has made great strides during the past 40 years and we are looking forward to our next 40 years. We have made significant contributions to the nation and are poised to do more if our intercity and high speed passenger rail network is afforded a significant and vital role in a balanced national transportation policy.