Amtrak ridership increases again, but long-distance trains in doubt

Posted by Curtis Tate on October 14, 2013 

Amtrak's Chicago-bound Capitol Limited rounds the curve at Point of Rocks, Md., on Sept. 7.

CURTIS TATE — McClatchy

Amtrak said Monday it posted another yearly increase in passengers as doubts loomed over the future of its money-losing network of long-distance trains.

The national passenger railroad said 31.6 million people rode its trains in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, with $2.1 billion in ticket sales.

Amtrak first crossed the 30 million mark in 2011, up from 20 million a decade earlier.

State-supported Amtrak's corridor trains in the Northeast, Midwest, Northwest and California accounted for half the ridership total. Its long-distance routes also posted their best year in 20 years, said president and CEO Joe Boardman.

"It doesn't mean we don’t need federal assistance," he said.

States must soon begin paying a greater share of the cost to operate Amtrak's trains, which could jeopardize some long-distance service. 

The difficulty with long-distance trains dates back to Amtrak's formation in 1971.

The law Congress passed creating Amtrak relieved freight carriers of their obligation to operate passenger trains, but required them to allow Amtrak to use their tracks. And the law required Amtrak to maintain a national network of routes without establishing a dedicated source of funding to pay for it, like the highway trust fund.

Amtrak has required more than $40 billion in federal subsidies in the past 40 years.

Amtrak's Southwest Chief uses a BNSF freight route through western Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. But BNSF operates few of its own trains over the line, and the track needs $100 million in maintenance or the train will have to be rerouted.

Neither Amtrak nor the states have the money lined up.

Boardman said Monday that he hoped BNSF would consider making the repairs itself so the train could continue to operate. The Southwest Chief serves Kansas City, Mo., and Albuquerque, N.M., but otherwise runs through sparsely populated areas.

"If you look at these small communities," he said, "they depend on Amtrak being accessible."

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