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Some Travelers Still Love Riding the Rails

January 2, 2006

WASHINGTON (AP) _ With a 3-year-old in tow, riding the rails cross-country was not an option. Given that, Melinda Pierson, her husband and daughter flew from their home in Los Angeles to visit her parents in New York.

To reach his parents in Washington, they took the high-speed Acela train, avoiding airport security lines and a long drive in a rental car on New Jersey highways.

The three-hour journey on Amtrak was so fast and easy that the Piersons were hungry for more. ``We didn’t even eat the food on the train, though everybody said the food is great,″ Melinda Pierson said.

While the money-losing railroad’s future is in question, fans are plentiful at Washington’s Union Station. Some 3.7 million people passed through the terminal in 2004 _ the latest year for which numbers are available _ part of a record 25 million passengers nationwide. That was up 4 percent, more than a million travelers, since 2003.

During the holiday crunch, many passengers said they enjoy the leisurely pace of traveling by train.

The troubled railroad did, however, suffer an embarrassing delay. Amtrak’s Silver Meteor arrived in New York more than 28 hours late on New Year’s Eve, releasing more than 100 exhausted, hungry and angry passengers. Their rail journey north from Florida had been interrupted by a derailed CSX freight train.

Still, Maria Graceffa, 36, on her way to Newport News, Va., said she’s a ``big train fan″ who takes Amtrak several times a year to New York City for business.

``It’s a lot more reliable and convenient, especially to New York,″ Graceffa said. ``You don’t have to take a cab into the city from LaGuardia″ Airport.

As Congress weighs the future of subsidized passenger rail service, many commuters and holiday travelers seem to have made up their minds. En route to places ranging from Miami to St. Albans, Vt., travelers say riding the train is often easier, cheaper and more fun.

Returning to Washington from Newport News, Steve Bennett, 51, said traveling by train is also a ``good way to see the country. Driving is a hassle.″

But those benefits come with a hefty price.

In its 34-year history, the National Railroad Passenger Corp. _ Amtrak’s official name _ has never turned a profit. It has a debt of more than $3.5 billion and its operating loss for 2005 topped $550 million.

Amtrak relies on federal subsidies to maintain its routes. The Bureau of. Transportation Statistics says rail receives the largest federal subsidy per user when compared with other transportation modes, such as air and highway travel.

The Bush administration has shown little interest in Amtrak.

Congress agreed to grant Amtrak $1.3 billion in subsidies in 2006, but the administration _ which had proposed no funding _ said the expensive annual bailout will not continue unless significant reforms are made.

``We are not willing to continue funding the current system. We are not even willing to continue funding tinkering around the edges,″ Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in November.

Those reforms included a September vote by the Amtrak board to explore breaking off the profitable Boston-New York-Washington ``Northeast Corridor″ route and allowing a private consortium to operate it.

Then-Amtrak President David Gunn said the proposal would lead to ``bad railroading.″ In November, the board fired Gunn, saying he wasn’t acting fast enough to implement reforms. Chief Engineer David Hughes is acting president while a replacement for Gunn is sought.

Critics say this move and others show the administration is trying to derail the system. But even train advocates say significant reform is needed.

Martin E. Robins, director of Rutgers University’s Voorhees Transportation Policy Institute, said that many routes served by Amtrak have a poor revenue-to-cost ratio.

``Everybody focuses on those trains that go 2,000 miles,″ he said.

Instead, policy-makers should move to ``aggressively develop middle corridors″ areas like the Northeast Corridor, where rail service provides a cost-efficient alternative to short airplane flights for both passengers and freight.

``There’s really little understanding on the national basis of the value of Amtrak and the benefit of Amtrak,″ Robins said.

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On the Net:

Amtrak: www.amtrak.gov

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