Passenger trains picking up steam

After half a century as more of a curiosity than a convenience, passenger trains are getting back on track in some parts of the country.

The high cost of energy, coupled with congestion on highways and at airports, is drawing travelers back to trains not only for commuting but also for travel between cities as much as 500 miles apart.

Californians are considering selling billions of dollars in bonds to get going on an 800-mile system of bullet trains that could go 200 mph, linking San Francisco and San Diego and cities in between.

In the Midwest, transit officials are pushing a plan to connect cities in nine states in a hub-and-spoke system centered in Chicago.

The public is way ahead of policymakers in recognizing trains as an attractive alternative to cars and planes, said Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“I think we're at a transformational point in intercity passenger rail service,” said Oberstar, D-Minn.

Amtrak, the passenger rail service that once struggled to attract riders, drew a record 28.7 million in the year ending Sept. 30. That's 11 percent more than the year before and the sixth straight year ridership has grown. Ticket revenue hit a record $1.7 billion, up $200 million from a year earlier.

Rail is gaining favor in Congress, which provides subsidies to keep Amtrak rolling. Lawmakers are seeking ways to deal with high energy prices, congested and aging roads and bridges, and an air traffic control system reliant on World War II-era technology.

Congress passed legislation this month that sets a goal of providing $13 billion over five years to Amtrak. It's a vote of confidence for the railroad that also encourages development of high-speed rail corridors and contains $2 billion in grants to states to enhance or introduce new service between cities. The money still must be appropriated.

President Bush, who has opposed anything more than minimal money for Amtrak over the past eight years, signed the bill Oct. 16.

With the economy in crisis, rail supporters acknowledge there is uncertainty in securing all the money, especially when competing with highway and aviation lobbies.

Unlike Europeans, whose cities are connected by passenger rail networks, relatively few Americans travel by rail except in the popular corridor from Washington to Boston, in parts of California, and routes from Chicago. Outside the Northeast, fares usually do not cover direct operating costs.

Critics say it is unfair to require people in areas without Amtrak service or with infrequent service to subsidize the train travel of people in the few corridors where there is frequent, fast service.

“I do not think you can justify many, perhaps most, of the routes Amtrak is running,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said during Senate debate last month. “Fundamentally, the romantic view that we are going to have some sort of major international rail system does not seem to be realistic.”