Amtrak: making the grade at last as a rail service?

For the first time since its formation in 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) appears to be gathering a full head of steam. The catalyst for change was the passage last fall of the Amtrak Reorganization Act of 1979. The law has spurred advances that address the problems of punctuality, passenger comfort, and the unprofitability of long-distance routes.

Recent developments include:

* Legislation signed into law May 30 by President Carter that authorizes an additional $750 million for the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project -- scheduled for completion in 1985 -- and brings total funding for the project to percent of all Amtrak passengers, and is the only section of the Amtrak system that consistently shows a profit.

* Multi-year capital funding by Congress for the first time, which will allow for long-term planning and perhaps presages sweeping route changes in the next few years. The perennial money-losers -- the long-distance trains -- are being deemphasized in favor of "corridor" routes (service between metropolitan areas of 1 million people or more, not more than 600 miles apart) that would be competitive with other travel means.

* Identification of 13 corridor routes around the country with the potential for profit. The corridors include: separate trains to and from Chicago and Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, the Twin Cities via Milwaukee, and St. Louis; Seattle-Portland; Los Angeles-San Diego; Los Angeles-Las Vegas; and the Texas triangle, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas/Ft. Worth. The recent legislation earmarks $38 million for further engineering and design studies for the corridors.

* Additions to the rolling stock, including delivery of a number of the 47 Swedish-designed, GM-built locomotives that will operate at 120 m.p.h. on the Northeast Corridor. Also, approximately 100 of the 284 cars of the superliner fleet already are in service. These include 85-foot long, two-level sleeper cars with deluxe and economy bedrooms and coach cars with fully reclining seats.

* Inauguration of new trains under a provision of the reorganization act that allows states or regions to institute passenger service by paying 20 percent of the cost of the train the first year of service, 35 percent the second, and 50 percent of the cost each year thereafter. Under this plan, service began April 28 with the Pennsylvanian making runs between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Despite these improvements, Amtrak's biggest problem is still its poor public image. This is largely due to the lack of direction afforded by Congress, whose committees oversee funding and set policy.

Noting the public relations problem, Amtrak management has instituted a continuing media campaign advertising new equipment and portraying a new spirit among employees, while at the same time appealing to the nostalgic lure of the rails. In addition, Amtrak is experimenting with travel packages, discount fares, and other economic incentives that lend pocketbook legitimacy to rail travel.

Amtrak also has a natural ally in the old stations it operates out of. Many of them are of historic value and are being revamped. Most of the stations in larger cities were established on property right downtown -- a boon to travelers weary of fighting traffic at outlaying airports and paying for a costly cab ride into the city.

One glaring aspect of Amtrak's public relations problem is its reputation as a big money-loser. Indeed, federal subsidies to Amtrak ran close to $600 million last year vs. $318 million in revenue.

But Amtrak spokesman Jung Ha Lee contends the figures are misleading. "There is a constant need to balance profitability and the congressional mandate for nationwide service," he says.

He says that if profitability were the only concern Amtrak could cut service on all lines but the Northeast Corridor and end up in the black, and adds, "What Congress is most interested in is proportional growth."

Amtrak seems to be achieving this goal. In 1977, revenues equaled 38 percent of expenditures, with Congress picking up the rest of the tab. In 1978 the figure increased to 40 percent, and in 1979 it was 42 percent. One goal outlined in the reorganization act calls for Amtrak to assume 50 percent of its operating costs by 1985.

One congressional source echoes the view of many that Amtrak will never hold its own financially. As one of the most labor- and capital-intensive conveyances in the transportation industry, Amtrak appears destined to always lsoe money, or at least break even. This, in turn, will leave Amtrak dependent on congressional funding and subject to the political exigencies of the lawmakers.

In the meantime, congressional attitudes -- particularly the notion Amtrak is simply a political plaything -- are changing.

For example, five trains have been canceled under a provision of last year's legislation requiring thatminimum economic criteria be met. Until last year, three powerful West Virginia lawmakers -- Sens. Robert Byrd (D) and Jennings Randolph (D) and Rep. Harley Staggers (D) -- all had a hand in retaining unprofitable routes through their state.

Despite Amtrak's problems, it has maintained a good rapport with Congress. The same cannot be said for the stormy marriage between Amtrak and the railroads , over whose tracks it runs its trains.

The disagreement centers on the right of way of Amtrak passenger trains over the railroads' freight trains. Federal law states that Amtrak trains have the right of way. But after four months of zero-percent on-time performance for its New Orleans-Los Angeles train, Amtrak went to court in an effort to gain a clearer statement of the law and stiffer penalties for its violation.

The condition of the roadbed over which Amtrak trains travel is a potential problem of some magnitude. Federal law states that the tracks must be kept in the same condition they were in 1971, when the corporation was formed.

Again, Amtrak finds itself, for the most part, dependent on the individual railroads' good will to uphold this clause in the contract. The problem has been skirted in the Northeast, where Amtrak owns the track itself. But this is not economically feasible for the entire system.

Deterioration of the roadbed must be avoided if Amtrak is to achieve the goal of a system-wide average speed of 55 m.p.h. In the past, on-time performance was battered by cushioning schedules, rather than improving speed. But this goal and others should be differentiated from binding legislation that would force rather than compel Amtrak to comply.

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