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Amtrak expanding long-distance routes

Beginning in summer to add more trains serving Western Pennsylvania, Ohio

Monday, February 28, 2000

From wire and local dispatches

WASHINGTON -- Amtrak, hoping to spur a rail renaissance that will solidify its shaky future, this week unveils a plan to add new passenger routes, expand into package delivery and maintain unprofitable routes.

Two years in the making, the blueprint would expand or improve service in 21 states, add 11 route segments and increase train frequency on three routes. It also would boost by 10 percent the number of station-to-station links and bring trains to the neighborhoods of 4 million potential new passengers.

"This is an effort to define, for the first time in our history, a national system that is underpinned by solid economic prospects," Amtrak President George Warrington said.

Amtrak is adding the newly named Manhattan Limited to provide more overnight service between New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago. A tentative schedule obtained by the Toledo Blade shows early morning stops in Pittsburgh in both directions.

Current overnight trains serving Pittsburgh are the Capitol Limited between Washington and Chicago via Cleveland, departing westbound at 11:59 p.m. and eastbound at 7:11 a.m. and the Three Rivers between New York and Chicago via Akron, departing westbound at 11:20 p.m. and eastbound at 8:43 a.m. The daylight Pennsylvanian between Philadelphia and Chicago via Cleveland departs westbound at 2:44 p.m and eastbound at 4:53 p.m.

Moreover, a planned second round of additions over the next two to three years includes Amtrak's first luxury train service, a New York-to-Los Angeles train via Pittsburgh and Albuquerque that would make the run in less than 60 hours while making eight stops. Passenger service would be provided in conjunction with a high-end rail tour operator, such as American Orient Express. The train also would haul high-rate express traffic.

The railway expects that the changes, when fully implemented, will generate $229 million in new annual revenue and cause a net gain of $65 million in 2003. The timing is crucial for Amtrak. Under a reform act passed in 1997, Amtrak has until the end of fiscal year 2002 to wean itself from federal operating subsidies or face possible liquidation.

Amtrak currently operates a 22,000-mile passenger rail system that serves more than 500 communities in 45 states.

The changes do not require approval by Congress. But in order to implement them, Amtrak will have to strike deals with various freight railroads.

Under the plan, Amtrak trains will begin stopping in Des Moines and Iowa City, Iowa; Rockford, Ill.; Vicksburg, Miss.; Monroe and Shreveport, La.; Lake Geneva and Janesville, Wis.; and destinations on the Atlantic Coast of Florida including Daytona Beach, Cape Canaveral and Fort Pierce.

Also, people as far north as Boston will be able to board a train and travel to Florida without having to transfer in New York. Gamblers will find more trains to take them to Shreveport's casinos. Riders can board in Michigan, sleep as their train dashes through Canada and wake up in upstate New York, on the way to New York City.

There are losers as well.

By taking a northern route through more heavily populated cities in Texas, the Sunset Limited train will no longer stop in Del Rio, Alpine and Sanderson.

Similarly, the International will stop in Ann Arbor and Dearborn, Mich., but no longer pass through five other Michigan cities -- East Lansing, Durand, Flint, Lapeer and Port Huron.

Amtrak officials are to officially unveil a report on its plan for growth on Tuesday, although some parts of the report have been disclosed in recent days.

Warrington said the plan reflects a hard lesson Amtrak learned in the mid-1990s: Cuts in service bring numerous complaints and fewer financial savings than expected.

"We've tried in the past to shrink, and all we've done is irritate people, reduce service and profits and ridership. And that's no way to run a railroad," said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, chairman of Amtrak's governing board. "The board is committed to building a national railroad system, and this is a giant step forward to doing it."

Illustrative of Amtrak's new philosophy is its treatment of the Sunset Limited, a money-loser that threads its way along the southern United States from Jacksonville, Fla., to Los Angeles.

The new analysis says that eliminating the Sunset Limited would save $8 million in costs but deprive Amtrak of $9.5 million in fares from passengers and fees from deliveries that rely on that line to connect to other routes.

Adopting a philosophy commonly associated with airlines, Amtrak officials now speak of tolerating money-losing routes as long as they bring people to a "hub" station where they can board a profitable, long-distance train.

Warrington said the report indicates that adjustments, not wholesale changes, are needed to strengthen Amtrak, created in 1971.

With the exception of a luxury transcontinental route designed to link New York and Los Angeles in 60 hours, Amtrak is proposing no new long-distance routes. Rather, the plan calls for strategic extensions, shifting equipment around and paying greater attention to mail and express business.

A case in point is the Crescent, which travels between New York and New Orleans.

Plans call for the train to separate in Meridian, Miss., with one segment heading west to Fort Worth, while the other continues south to New Orleans. This would allow Amtrak to add service to Vicksburg, Miss., and to Monroe and Shreveport, La., while building opportunities for mail and express deliveries between Dallas-Fort Worth and the East Coast.

Expected payoff: An additional $7.7 million a year as of 2003.

The mail and express business is key to Amtrak's recipe for financial recovery, as is a plan to begin hauling meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables in refrigerated cars attached to intercity trains.

Sensitive to the concerns of freight railroads, Warrington stresses that he is looking to complement what they do, not to compete, and to enter into partnerships to make the best use of the resource they all share: Tracks.



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