Faster trains a key issue at Amtrak

Amtrak has not yet met the 1970s goal of cutting Boston-New York travel time to three hours. Amtrak has not yet met the 1970s goal of cutting Boston-New York travel time to three hours. (George Rizer/ Globe Staff/ File 2008)
By Susan Stellin
New York Times / December 29, 2009

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NEW YORK - Amtrak has been working hard to lure more business travelers to its trains, with advertisements highlighting its advantages over air travel: roomier seats, power outlets on its Acela trains, and fewer annoyances.

And its efforts have borne some fruit. The number of riders on its Northeast corridor trains has been rising.

But faster trains are critical to its future. So while Amtrak got some desperately needed financing from the federal government this year, its forecasts suggest that speedier rail travel in the United States remains a daunting challenge.

For the Northeast corridor alone, Amtrak estimates it will need almost $700 million annually for the next 15 years to maintain the system and to tackle a backlog of maintenance projects and upgrades.

Reducing travel times between New York and Washington to two and a half hours and times between New York and Boston to three hours - goals that were established in the 1970s - will require straighter track, improvements to bridges and tunnels, increased capacity through Manhattan, and newer trains, among other investments.

Almost all of Amtrak’s lines fail to make money, with a total loss of $1.1 billion in 2008. Even technology enhancements seem to move at a slow pace: Developing a new electronic reservation system is expected to take until 2015.

Still, Amtrak officials are more optimistic now than they have been in a long time.

“We’re probably in the best position to move forward to get the things done we want to get done and that the government wants us to get done,’’ said David Lim, chief marketing officer. “We have an administration that is supportive of rail.’’

One of the biggest changes for Amtrak is that after years of bare-bones annual financing that limited the railroad’s ability to make significant upgrades, Congress approved a five-year authorization in 2008 that allocates the system nearly $2 billion a year.

Although the money still needs to be appropriated every year, Lim said, “the fact that there’s a five-year plan makes a tremendous difference. Asking the government for your annual subsidy obviously makes it difficult to plan and execute capital projects.’’

In addition, the economic stimulus package approved by Congress early this year provided $1.3 billion to supplement Amtrak’s capital budget and $8 billion in grants for intercity service and high-speed passenger rail. While those amounts will not go far in developing bullet trains like those that operate in Europe and Asia and will probably be distributed among projects throughout the country, Amtrak officials say they view the investment as an important policy shift.

There are also signs more passengers are embracing trains. The number of Amtrak riders has increased steadily since 2001, surpassing 28 million in 2008, though a decline is expected this year because of the recession.