WASHINGTON - Amtrak's new president wants to upgrade the passenger railroad's image and the tracks it shares with the nation's increasingly busy freight rail carriers - and he expects the federal government to help.
Four months into the job, Alex Kummant said he found the much-maligned railroad in better shape than he expected. But he said it could still take better advantage of a growing appetite for rail travel fueled by high gas prices and highway congestion.
"There is a lot of good news to talk about," he said in an interview in his office atop Washington's Union Station. "You have to build the Amtrak brand for people."
Amtrak needs to work with states to expand service over medium distances and improve the long-distance trains that account for most of its losses, Kummant said. Also key, he said, are government incentives to stimulate capital investment in the nation's nearly maxed-out rail infrastructure.
The government-owned corporation reported record ticket revenue of $1.37 billion in fiscal 2006, which ended Sept. 30 - 11 percent over fiscal 2005 - with ridership ticking up 1 percent, to 24.3 million passengers.
The system, created in 1970 to take over declining passenger rail service, depends heavily on government funding. In fiscal 2006, it received $1.3 billion from Congress, including a $485 million operating subsidy.
Kummant, 46, a former freight railroad and manufacturing executive, said expectations that Amtrak could be self-sufficient were misguided. Passenger rail, he noticed, is subsidized throughout the world.
There could be room to partner with the private sector, he said, but added: "You need to walk before you can run."
Amtrak supporters are hopeful that the new Congress will pass legislation introduced last week by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and Trent Lott (R., Miss.) that would establish funding targets for Amtrak for the next six years. It would also create a program of capital matching grants for states that want to invest in "corridor service" - frequently traveled routes up to about 500 miles, such as the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington.
Kummant said the shorter routes were Amtrak's real growth opportunity. "We can offer genuine solutions to public transportation problems with that type of service," he said.
Rail service on such corridors can be competitive at 80 to 100 m.p.h., without trying to provide capital-intensive high-speed service, he said. Amtrak's fastest train, the Acela Express, reaches 150 m.p.h., but such speeds require upgraded electrical systems and tracks.
The Government Accountability Office concluded in a November report that long-distance routes - such as the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles, and the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle - accounted for 15 percent of riders and 80 percent of Amtrak's losses, and provide little public benefit.
Kummant said he had no intention of abandoning long-distance routes, loosely defined as those longer than 500 miles. But he said he was working with Amtrak's board of directors, made up of appointees of President Bush, to come up with a strategy that might include breaking some long routes into multiple state corridors.
Amtrak is criticized for the losses in its long-distance routes, but if those routes were eliminated, they would be hard to reestablish, Kummant said.
Kummant voiced skepticism about proposals to split off the Northeast Corridor, which accounts for more than half of Amtrak's ticket revenue, and put it under separate management.