Seats Going Fast On Amtrak Line
TAMPA - One of the fastest-growing ways to travel today requires an average of 2.4 gallons of diesel fuel to go 1 mile. But that fuel powers a passenger train carrying several hundred people, who are turning to Amtrak in record numbers to avoid high gasoline prices and airline and highway travel hassles. Amtrak's Silver Star, which serves Tampa with a daily northbound and southbound train between New York and Miami, reported a 28.2 percent increase in June ridership compared with a year ago. That's atop a 16.4 percent year-over-year ridership increase in May. No breakdown was available for the number of passengers arriving and departing Tampa last month. But June ridership on the Silver Star reached 37,728, boosting the month's ticket revenue 21.6 percent compared with June 2007 to $2.6 million.Nationwide, Amtrak ridership is projected to reach 28 million passengers for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up from 25.8 million a year ago. "We attribute about half the ridership increases to fuel prices people face and the other half to people looking for alternatives to congested highways," said Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell at the federally owned railroad's Washington headquarters. Amtrak essentially operates three passenger railroads within one. The Northeast Corridor, with high-speed Acela and conventional trains between Washington and Boston, accounted for $79 million of Amtrak's $154.6 million June revenue. More important, Northeast Corridor trains operate in the black, compared with 14 of 15 Amtrak long-distance trains such as the Silver Star. The long-distance exception that operates in the black is the Auto Train, which carries passengers and their vehicles between Sanford and Lorton Va., just south of Washington. Another 26 short-distance trains such as those between Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis operate with the help of state-supported subsidies. One of Amtrak's perennial problems - the annual budget battle in Washington being the most severe one - is that with the exception of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak must operate on tracks owned and controlled by freight railroads, which have the largest impact in causing late service. Despite building a 2-hour, 35-minute, cushion for delays into its Silver Star route between New York and Miami through Tampa, the train in May was late an average 3 hours and 38 minutes on its 31-hour trips. Increasing diesel fuel prices also bedevil Amtrak. Amtrak paid $3.75 a gallon in May compared with its budget of $2.45 a gallon, and $2.16 a gallon in May 2007. Amtrak's fuel, power and utility costs from October through May were $233.4 million, $47.3 million more than spent a year ago. Amtrak recently raised some fares to compensate for higher fuel costs - 5 percent between Chicago and Milwaukee, for example - but not on the Silver Star. The bright news for Amtrak is that the House and Senate this summer separately passed five-year appropriations bills of $15 billion and $11 billion, respectively, in the face of increased demand for train travel. Although the final amount is subject to congressional negotiation and agreement, passage of a five-year appropriation would provide Amtrak with an opportunity to forge longer-term investment plans than with its customary year-to-year budgets.
Reporter Ted Jackovics can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 259-7817.