Amtrak picking up allies here

Business leaders favor better rail funding, which they link to economy.

Amtrak is still fighting Bush administration demands that it turn a profit, but prospects are improving for long-term federal funding to improve service, especially in the Northeast Corridor, railroad president Alex Kummant said yesterday.

Philadelphia-area business leaders also have launched a campaign in Washington to advocate for dedicated Amtrak money to boost the regional economy.

Alex Kummant, new president of Amtrak.

"We have gone too long without real progress," the chief executives of more than 50 area firms said in a letter to six senators and 13 representatives from Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware. "The future of the Northeast Corridor is so critical to our region's economic future that we have resolved to work with you and the region's governors to ensure that the federal government makes a funding commitment . . ."

The business leaders are urging passage of a bill that would provide about $3.2 billion a year for six years to subsidize operations, repair and improve rail lines, and help states fund rail corridors. The bill was introduced in the Senate in January by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and Trent Lott (R., Miss.).

A similar bill passed the Senate last year, but did not come to a vote in the House. This year, with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, Amtrak advocates are more optimistic.

The Bush administration has criticized the proposal, arguing it undermines any incentive for the railroad to become more efficient and businesslike. Joseph Boardman, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, told a Senate subcommittee this week that the administration had "serious reservations" about the bill and that the federal government must stop subsidizing Amtrak.

The administration has proposed a subsidy of $800 million next year, about half of what Kummant said Amtrak needs. He has asked for $1.53 billion, up from the $1.3 billion the railroad is receiving this year.

"We will never have a balanced budget," Kummant said yesterday after meeting in Center City with the assembled business leaders in the CEO Council for Growth. "The debate has to shift away from 'will you make money?' That's not realistic."

More than anything else, Kummant said, Amtrak needs predictable, dependable funding so it can plan repairs, upgrades and service improvements.

"Staggering from year to year is not an efficient way to operate," said Kummant, a former freight railroad and manufacturing executive who became president of Amtrak in September.

Kummant said Amtrak's greatest strength lies in its ability to compete with air, bus and auto service over distances of 100 to 500 miles. Along the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, and on lines that many states help pay for, such as the Keystone service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, trains offer a crucial alternative, he said. And he said they reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

He said partnerships with states for local rail corridors should be an increasing part of Amtrak's future.

Kummant rejected calls for ending long-distance service, which accounts for 80 percent of Amtrak's operating losses while serving 15 percent of its passengers.

If the routes are abandoned, he said, it would be almost impossible to resurrect them.

"We're on a path to develop a national rail network . . . and it only costs about $1.50 a year for each person in the country to keep that option open," Kummant said.

Mark Schweiker, head of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the affiliated CEO group, said "we like the political circumstances that present themselves in the House" for Amtrak now. And he said lobbying by local CEOs and their companies could be persuasive.

"We take the ideology out of it. That's not our debate," said Schweiker, a Republican who served 16 months as Pennsylvania governor. "It's an economic issue. Part of our effort will be to persuade the president's counselors that what is good for our region is also good for the country."

Amtrak, created in 1970 to take over the nation's declining passenger rail service, reported record ticket revenue of $1.37 billion in fiscal 2006, up 11 percent from the previous year, while ridership rose 1 percent to 24.3 million passengers.

Trains on the Northeast Corridor carried about 9.4 million passengers and generated about $725 million in ticket revenue in fiscal 2006, which ended last September.

Philadelphia's 30th Street Station is Amtrak's third busiest, with about 20 percent of Amtrak's riders passing through the station. Only New York's Pennsylvania Station and Washington's Union Station are busier.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or