Switching tracks to meet demand

SUN JOURNAL

Amtrak: With fear grounding airline industry, rail service has gone from passe to a priority. But trying to get up to speed, its cars are loaded down with years of neglect.

September 28, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - As Leslie Serchuk saw it, she had three choices: cancel her vacation to Portland, Maine; fly there in little more than an hour; or take a cab to Washington's Union Station, hop aboard an Amtrak train, ride the rails overnight for nine hours, hop off in Boston, grab a rental car just in time for rush-hour traffic and battle it out on the roadways for at least another two hours.

For her, the decision was a no-brainer.

"I might fly again when they quit finding box cutters on planes and in airports," she was saying as she prepared to board the Twilight Shoreliner to Boston. "And I wasn't going to cancel my vacation. So for now, Amtrak's got me."

The question for Amtrak is whether it can keep Serchuk and others like her.

She is among thousands of people who have switched from planes to trains since the Sept. 11 attacks, taking a fresh look at a mode of transportation that many had considered passe.

Trains in the Northeast corridor - the route from Washington to Boston - have seen the biggest increase in ridership, leveling off somewhere near 39,000 riders, or an additional 3,000 per day. That is because Reagan National Airport has been closed indefinitely, airline service elsewhere remains spotty and some people simply remain too spooked to fly.

Amtrak, conscious that it has the opportunity of its 30-year lifetime to reintroduce itself to travelers, is working to erase the first impression many people had of it as lumbering and unreliable.

Its pitch: The service is good - great in the Northeast corridor - and it will only get better. Trains are more comfortable than planes, are better suited for working while en route and in some areas offer more departure times.

"This is a chance for people to see that Amtrak is a viable alternative to the airlines and automobile travel in the Northeast corridor," says Frank Wilner, a Virginia author who wrote the history of Amtrak in The Amtrak Story, published in 1993, and who continues to follow its evolution. "Maybe more importantly, this is an opportunity for Amtrak to become even more viable and interest people outside the corridor."

To keep the trains rolling, though, Amtrak needs cash. It has never been profitable, finishing last year with an operating loss of $561 million. It is likely to end this year about $50 million in the red.

But the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - and the subsequent effects on air traffic - have given the railway new standing and new momentum in securing billions of dollars.

Amtrak has asked Congress for $3.2 billion in emergency money, to increase security and improve tunnels in New York and Baltimore. The tunnels have long been considered potential death traps should any accident occur inside them because there is no practical way for riders to evacuate. But the money also would be used to increase the number of trains that could run at a given time, thereby increasing speed.

And as the Northeast corridor has demonstrated to Amtrak, getting passengers from Point A to Point B more quickly than a plane is the best way to lure passengers.

The proof: Some 70 percent of people who travel from Washington to New York use Amtrak, completing the trip in three hours on its older trains and 20 minutes sooner on its new high-speed Acela Express.

But only 30 percent of people who travel from New York to Boston are willing to spend up to 4 1/2 hours in an Amtrak car. Most of the remaining travelers - prior to Sept. 11 - have traveled by planes. The flying time is slightly less than an hour.

"That tells you that speed sells - period," says Mark Reutter, editor of the journal Railroad History, and who has written extensively about high-speed trains. "Speed has sold since the time that steam locomotives came into business. It sells all over the world."

Amtrak officials have been walking a fine public relations line since the attacks. They do not want to seem opportunistic and insensitive to the tragedy, but they want to highlight the imbalance in the three legs to the country's transportation system - railways, airways and highways.

One of the consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks is that increased security at airports has, in practical terms, increased flying times. That has narrowed the speed gap between trains and planes.

Amtrak's plan, long before the tragedies, has been to reduce its travel times, concentrating most intently on travel between New York and Boston. In addition to the emergency money it is requesting, Amtrak has been pushing Congress to pass a $12 billion bond bill. That money would extend high-speed rail service beyond the Northeast corridor as well as decrease riding times within it.

While its prospects for passage had been uncertain, it is now likely to pass.

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