Amtrak postpones steep fare increases

Railroad was to raise price of monthly passes by hundreds of dollars

September 16, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

After hearing protests from Capitol Hill, Amtrak has backed away from a plan to impose steep fare increases next week on its most frequent riders.

The railroad said yesterday it was indefinitely postponing a plan to charge about 2,000 commuters on the Eastern Seaboard hundreds of dollars more for a monthly rail pass, as well as to impose an across-the-board fare increase of 5 percent to 7 percent to help cover rising fuel costs.

Scores of passengers in Maryland use the monthly Smart Passes to commute to such cities as Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia.

Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, who had sent a letter to Amtrak opposing the increases, hailed what they called a "retreat" by Amtrak.

The two Democrats noted that Amtrak had set no new date for taking action on fares. Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black declined to explain, saying only that it postponed the fare increase "to conclude additional briefings with public officials."

Some Maryland riders who commute on Amtrak said the fare increases were so draconian that they would have had to look for new jobs or relocate.

For instance, commuters who pay $528 for a monthly pass to travel between Baltimore and Philadelphia would have had to pay $882 -- a 67 percent increase -- as of Tuesday. The fare increase was announced Sept. 9, giving passengers less than two weeks' notice.

"It's just a huge relief for me," said Alisha Rovner, a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health graduate student who commutes from Penn Station to Philadelphia for her thesis work at Children's Hospital there. "To increase it $300, I think that's just outrageous."

Henry Otto, a Kensington resident who catches an Amtrak train in New Carrollton to his investment management job in Wilmington, welcomed the news of Amtrak's reversal. He said he had faced an increase from about $580 a month to $870.

"I'm in a position where it would have been very painful, but I would have kept doing the commute," he said. "For a lot of people, it would have been a much more difficult thing to deal with."

The monthly passes are sold at a discount of 70 percent off the full-fare price for 18 roundtrips. Before its reversal, Amtrak said it wanted to lower the discount to 50 percent.

This week Amtrak spokesmen dismissed the commuting passengers as an insignificant percentage of the railroad's riders -- estimating their number at 1,500. In a news release yesterday, Amtrak revised that number, saying it sells an average of 1,989 monthly Smart Passes on the Northeast Corridor, along with another 178 on its Empire Service, which connects New York City and Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Sarbanes and Mikulski were among several lawmakers from northeastern states who challenged Amtrak's decision.

A Sarbanes spokesman said the senators heard complaints from constituents as well as from Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

The spokesman, Jesse Jacobs, said Sarbanes believes the railroad had been pushed to raise rates because of what he called severe underfunding of Amtrak.

"In raising fares, it then becomes noneconomical for many passengers to continue to use the rail service, and ridership drops, and it becomes a spiraling downward cycle," he said.

The administration is proposing sharp decreases in the subsidies Amtrak receives from the government. But its efforts are running into severe resistance in the Senate, where even many Republicans are big Amtrak boosters.

An appropriations bill in the Senate allocates $1.45 billion in next year's budget for Amtrak's operating and capital costs -- $1.09 billion more than the president's request of $360 million.

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