The 'little railroad' that might
New York — One hundred and seven miles an hour on the Albany-to-New York City Amtrak run! Engineer Charlie Potash held that speed for only a few seconds before slowing for a curve. He said he's dreamed of making that kind of time for rail passengers since he started with the New York Central Railroad 36 years ago.
Officials of Amtrak (the National Railroad Passenger Corporation) have a similar dream -- attaining consistent high speeds on the Boston-New York-Washington runs (the Northeast corridor), beating the downtown-to-downtown times possible with air travel.
But such success doesn't seem to be waiting around the next bend -- or the next. Instead, Amtrak seems to be facing a slow uphill climb at half-throttle.
Ahead are key congressional decisions that will determine not only how fast rail passengers reach their destinations and in what kind of style, but whether there will be scheduled passenger service at all in most of the United States.
It now appears certain that Congress, with the support of the Reagan administration, will approve a $735 million budget for Amtrak in fiscal year 1982. This level of funding is expected to be passed either in overall budget legislation coming up for consideration in the US House of Representatives later this week or as a separate measure.
The administration had trimmed Amtrak's original $853 million "bare bones" request to $613 million, but the Senate Commerce Committee saw fit to go along with a House Energy and Commerce Committee bill earmarking $735 million for the beleaguered train service. The Reagan budget makers now have accepted that figure.
Even so, Amtrak may be able to keep only 85 percent of its present service -- it serves 24,000 route-miles in 44 states -- in fiscal year 1982, which begins Oct. 1.
Exactly what service routes will be pared isn't clear yet. However, Amtrak spokesman say primary candidates for service cuts include the Northeast corridor and the Washington-Chicago, Washington-Cincinnati, and Chicago-Houston runs.
Though acceding to the budget figure of $735 million, the Reagan administration has not lessened its pressure on Alan S. Boyd, president of Amtrak, to keep his promise to make the passenger train corporation self- supporting by 1985 or eliminate unprofitable routes. Mr. Boyd has said that unprofitable routes would be continued after 1985 only if the losses were made up by state and local contributions or revenue from profitable routes.
Boyd proposes to liberate rail passenger service from the federal dole by diversifying into private income-generating enterprises other than transportation.
"All we ask for is a limited amount of short-term funding from the government , time to put the strategy to work, and some understanding that passenger trains are a transportation solution and not a transportation problem," the Amtrak president said recently. The strategy to diversify and make Amtrak profitable has three key elements:
* Amtrak is working with the City of Philadelphia, the Carley Capital Group, and private investors to develop 30 acres of air rights north of the 30th Street Station in that city.
* Having put its own equipment into much better condition than it was a few years ago, Amtrak intends to use its extensive car and engine maitnenance service capability to service other railroad operators -- for a profit.
* Amtrak is seeking private investors to develop a $30 million "fiber-optics" system, one of the most promising technological breakthroughs in the communications field. The railroad intends to rent this service to others as well as use it for its own operations.
Many transportation experts say these initiatives are encouraging steps toward greater self-sufficiency. But even staunch Amtrak supporters, such as US Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the subcommittee on commerce , transportation, and tourism of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, insist that the railroad must also trim "frills."
Although most people who've ridden an Amtrak train recently might be surprised to hear that there are any "frills," legislation that the House is expected to pass soon calls upon the passenger service to:
1. Eliminate its food and beverage deficit by the end of fiscal year 1983. Amtrak will chalk up a dining service deficit of nearly $55 million this fiscal year. For the most part, dining cars with waiter service would be phased out, with hot meals perhaps served "cafeteria style." The snack cars you see on the Metroliner and other trains would be kept essentialy as they are.
2. Use cars with great passenger capacity. In the Northeast corridor, most passenger cars seat 84 persons. But most long-distance trains only seat 44. Many of the existing 44- seat cars may be converted to seat more people.
3. Eliminate nonessential sleeping cars.These "sleeper-coaches," as they often are called, are extremely costly to run and maintain -- despite the steep price of a sleeper ticket these days.
Like the Reagan administration, Representative Florio and other congressmen, as well as Amtrak officials themselves, believe the passenger fares must be raised. But they differ as to the size of the hike.
Bruce Gwinn, Florio's staff expert on Amtrak, says the Reagan administration's fare proposals would price most passengers out of the market. It would be far better, he insists, to selectively target increases. For example, Mr. Gwinn thinks Amtrak should hike ticket prices on high-density routes and during those periods, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, when train travel as a whole enjoys a seasonal surge.
"Passengers currently pay only about 40 percent of Amtrak operating costs" notes US Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R) of Connecticut, "with an average ticket subsidy by the American taxpayer of $35 per trip. On some routes [particularly in the Western US], the subsidy can reach as much as $192 per ticket. . . . In my view, much of the financial burden for Amtrak should be shifted from the taxpayers to those utilizing the service -- the passengers."
In Amtrak's first decade of existence, however, taxpayers have had to shoulder the bulk of its operating budget. This budget has mushroomed from $342 million in calendar year 1972, the first full year of operation, to a whopping $ 1.4 billion project for fiscal year 1981, which ends Sept 30. Although revenues have increased as well, mostly through ticket sales, they have failed to keep pace with costs. In calendar year 1972, the line generated $162.6 million in revenue; in fiscal 1980, that last full fiscal year for which figures are available, Amtrak generated $428 million.
At the same time, officials say the carrier's projected overall deficit for fiscal 1981 is expected to exceed $800 million.
Amtrak president Boyd says that he won't be satisfied until the train service is out of the red, but he contends that the deficits of the past decade must be viewed inbroader terms. "The cumulative results of Amtrak's contribution to the national economy was more than $5.2 million in fiscal year 1980, plus the creation of some $172,147 jobs," he maintains.
"Every dollar now invested in new equipment directly yields new revenue and generates an increasingly attractive return on investment," Boyd continues. "Amtrak is a growth company, and we are covering more and more of our costs through revenues."
Critics contend, however, that Amtrak also is needlessly wasting money -- on management, the unions, stations, and equipment.
John Hansen, vice-president of the 15,000- member Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, AFL-CIO, claims Amtrak is "top-heavy with management." In recent weeks, though, the carrier laid off more than 100 employees at its Washington, D.C., headquarters, many of them at "middle-management" levels.
Management criticizes some union contracts, which it contends raise costs but don't increase productivity. Although Amtrak is entering into negotiations with the rail labor unions to increase productivity, most close observers say this is a long and difficult process.
While it may be vitally important to upgrade equipment to help prevent breakdowns and delays, say some critics, money has been spent needlessly on some stations. A new "Albany-Rensselaer" station in New York is cited as an example.Amtrak officials in Washington told the Monitor that if a proposal for construction of a new station there came up today it might not be approved.
Amtrak's track record 1971 1981 Passenger 1,275 deteriorating old cars, 1,633 new, modernized cars Average age: more than 20 cars. Average age: 3.3 years Locomotives Average age: more than 20 Average age: 5.5 years years Routes Average 200 trains daily over Average 240 trains dailyi 23,000 miles over 24,000 miles Federal 139.0 million $668.0 million subsidy Profit/loss -$147.0 million -$809.3(e) Ridership 16.6 million passengers 21.2 million passengers Right-of-way None 650 route-miles owned Stations None Committed $70 million for owned new and renovated stations Employees Approximately 1,500 Approximately 22,000