Amid conservation push, Amtrak to raise its fares

Announcement comes as Bush urges greater use of mass transit


A day after President Bush urged Americans to get out of their cars and use mass transit, Amtrak said yesterday that it will raise fares nationwide to offset increased fuel costs and reinstate hefty increases for commuters in the Northeast corridor.

In a concession to the outcry that followed its original decision to raise some commuter fares by hundreds of dollars a month, the railroad said it would implement that increase in two stages - one next month and the other in February. Then, commuters would have to absorb the same increases Amtrak announced Sept. 9 - more than $350 a month in some cases.

The higher price of monthly passes came on top of a planned general fare increase of 5 percent to 7 percent to account for fuel costs that have risen 40 percent over the past year.

Amtrak rescinded both increases, which came with less than two weeks' notice, on Sept. 15 after lawmakers protested. Yesterday it said it would impose the general increase Tuesday and half of the commuter fare increase Oct. 16 - with the other half in February.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who was among the legislators objecting, said the increases fly in the face of Bush's call for increased use of transit.

"You really run the risk of forcing commuters to stop using the train, thus reducing [Amtrak] revenues," Sarbanes said. `We want people to ride the train and we want Amtrak to encourage people to ride the trains."

Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland's other Democratic senator, also pointed to the president's call for people to drive less - terming the fare increases a mistake.

"It is a step in the wrong direction for the federal government to deny subsidies to assist Amtrak in making travel easier for commuters. We should be encouraging the use of rail and transit alternatives, like Amtrak, which are a vital component of our commuter transportation network," she said in an e-mailed statement.

The riders who will be most affected by the increases are a relatively small group of about 2,000 long-distance commuters who travel on SmartPass tickets between such cities as Baltimore and Philadelphia or New York and Wilmington.

Bill Schulz, an Amtrak spokesman, said the fare increase means a commuter between Baltimore and Philadelphia would see the price of a monthly pass rise from $528 now to $705 next month and $882 in February.

The current monthly fares reflect a 70 percent discount from the price of 18 individually purchased round trips. Amtrak's management reiterated yesterday its determination to reduce that discount to 50 percent. The fares going into effect Oct. 16 represent an intermediate step of 60 percent.

Schulz called the new monthly fares a "right-sizing" of the discount.

"If you look at the numbers, both the 50 percent and 60 percent discounts are the largest offered to commuters by any railroad," he said.

Schulz acknowledged that Amtrak was comparing itself to commuter railroads, whose prices tend to be lower than inter-city rail fares.

For the commuters who rely on monthly passes, the increase comes as a heavy blow to their budgets.

Anna Maria Patino, who is in the middle of a psychology fellowship at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, said she and some fellow commuters have discussed car-pooling but found it hard to coordinate schedules.

Patino, who lives with her husband in Baltimore, was unimpressed by the decision to stagger the increase.

"I'm not sure if they think they're easing the burden by breaking it up in two. To me it's all the same," she said.

Karen Matthews, who commutes from Baltimore to her job at the same hospital, said she is already spending about 18 percent of her monthly take-home pay on Amtrak. The increase, she said, would more than wipe out any gain she made by taking the job in Philadelphia.

"There's lots of capacity on the train. You would think that they'd spend their energies trying to increase ridership overall," she said.

Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said some Amtrak managers believe the railroad has been overly generous to its monthly pass customers. The attitude, he said, is: "We're in the inter-city passenger business - don't bother us with commuters."

Schulz denied that Amtrak was trying to get out of the commuter passenger business and said it would continue to offer its SmartPass program.

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