All things considered, Michael Cole was in good spirits as he awaited the southbound Silver Star for a train ride to Fort Lauderdale on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
The New York-Tampa-Miami train was on-time. Another 64 passengers and some visitors seeing them off added busyness and energy that's absent most of the day at Tampa's handsomely restored Union Station.
Best of all, Cole's one-way ticket to south Florida cost just $36. That offset the difficulty the U.S. Air Force veteran had getting from Pasco County to the Tampa train station without driving a car.
"The best scheduled buses miss connections by eight minutes," Cole said, grateful a friend was willing to pick him up in Pinellas County to spare him the third and last leg of his planned bus trips to the train station.
Myriad issues like connecting transportation, problematic on-board toilets and slow trains add up alongside Amtrak's perennial battle for supplemental government funding that nearly all successful rail systems enjoy worldwide – not unlike taxes that support highways and air travel, rail advocates say.
Yet Amtrak rolls on, setting an annual ridership record for the 12-month period ended Sept. 30 with 30-million-plus passengers nationwide.
Amtrak's popularity in Tampa continues to stand out, with Tampa the origin or destination for seven of the 10 busiest trips passengers take on the Silver Star.
Now, Amtrak has set modest goals for improving the Silver Star and its 14 other long-distance trains, focusing on increasing ridership, revenue, on-time performance and customer satisfaction while reducing operating costs.
Some improvements are slated for all of Amtrak's long distance trains. A major one will be phased in starting in 2013, when 130 new long distance cars replace old ones on trains east of the Mississippi River, including the Silver Star.
Other initiatives include improving the menus with regional cuisine in lounges and diners; selling passenger "comfort packs" with a blanket, eye mask and other items; treating windows to prevent streaks and spots: providing more guidance for crews to correct minor mechanical issues en route; providing smoother rides in sleeping cars, and cleaner restrooms for all cars.
Amtrak wants to add a stop in Fredericksburg, Va., for the Silver Star, and move connecting Amtrak bus service on campus at the University of Florida and add a stop at The Villages retirement community in Sumter County.
The timetable for those and other changes remains under discussion, Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said.
More ambitious plans were considered for the Silver Star, such as rerouting it via Charlotte and Greensboro, N.C.
Another plan would have restored direct service between Chicago and Florida that last operated in 1979. That proposal would have run the Silver Star between Chicago and Orlando and extended the Palmetto line, which operates between New York and Savannah, to Tampa and Miami, replacing the Silver Star's Tampa and Miami service.
Another Amtrak concept was to split the Silver Star in Jacksonville into separate trains that operate to Miami: one on Florida East Coast Railway tracks from Jacksonville to Miami to serve cities such as Daytona Beach and St. Augustine, and the other to serve Tampa on the way to Miami.
Those plans have been shelved pending further review, and most important, funding that's not available now.
"The context in which Amtrak is operating is that the best 2012 funding level likely is going to require cutbacks in basic maintenance and thus declines in service quality," said Ross Capon, president and chief executive of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
The NARP emphasized that Amtrak's Performance Improvement Plan, required by federal legislation that reauthorized Amtrak in 2008, does not involve a significant increase in service levels, such as new routes and frequencies, so when measured against what service advocates would like to see, the plan will always fall short.
The plan revealed that Silver Star ridership increased the first 11 months of fiscal 2011 by 7.9 percent over fiscal 2010, when the train carried 393,586 passengers, including 125,793 who got on or off at Tampa.
A little more than half of the riders are college graduates, more than two thirds are women and 60 percent travel alone, the Amtrak plan reported.
Only 7 percent traveled for business, reflecting difficulty the schedule that a once-a-day train each direction imposes on those seeking particular arrival and departure times.
Yet, six of the busiest trips to and from Tampa are origins or destinations within Florida: Miami, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Hollywood, and Deerfield Beach. The seventh busiest trip on the Silver Star is between Tampa and New York.
That has raised questions of "what could've been" had plans materialized for a high-speed rail route envisioned between Tampa, Orlando and Miami, before a libertarian report that Gov Rick Scott relied on quashed prospects earlier this year, despite Florida Department of Transportation studies that predicted sufficient demand to meet operational costs.
"The only thing I wish is that this train was faster," said Louis Berthony, who has homes in Tampa and Miami.
Berthony was taking only his second Amtrak ever, facing a 5 hour, 20 minute ride from Tampa to Miami. "High-speed rail would be nice."
Samples of Amtrak fares for one-way coach travel between Tampa and various destinations for Nov. 14:
Tampa- Orlando $10
Tampa- Miami $38
Tampa-Washington, DC $113
Tampa-New York $125
Sleeping car accommodations are available at extra charge that include meals.
Amtrak offers a number of discounts, including half-fare travel for children age 2 through 15; 10 percent off for American Automobile Association members; 15 percent off for those 62 and older; 15 percent off for students with Amtrak’s Student Advantage Card; and others discounts, including short-term deals.