- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Travelers are boarding Amtrak in record numbers since last Tuesday when four airplanes were hijacked and the federal government temporarily suspended commercial flights.

The increase in passengers could help the financially troubled rail service, which has lost money since it was founded in 1971 despite an estimated $24 billion in federal subsidies.

Amtrak added cars to routes to accommodate a 40 percent increase last week in passengers unable to fly during the two-day shutdown of U.S. airports. The surge in riders on Amtrak continued after airports began to reopen on Thursday as passengers opted for trains over airplanes out of concern for safety and delays caused by new safety measures at the nation's airports.

The boost in Amtrak riders was significant. About 60,000 people a day ride Amtrak, spokeswoman Kajal Jahaveri said. That rose to about 80,000 passengers a day for the five days from Sept. 12 to 16.

It remains to be seen whether the increase will help Amtrak meet a federal mandate to become self-sufficient by next year.

"To me, it's premature to say. Improved revenue is a very good thing for Amtrak. But the key is whether they can handle the increase in passengers without a commensurate increase in operating costs," said Thomas Till, executive director of the federally appointed Amtrak Reform Council.

Almost all of Amtrak's long-distance trains have been sold out since last Tuesday. Amtrak added trains along the Northeast corridor from Washington to Boston and added cars to regularly scheduled trains throughout the rest of the country. There were more passengers than usual on routes from Chicago to New York, New York to Florida and Chicago to West Coast cities.

Miss Jahaveri said Amtrak carried 2,000 more passengers a day on trains in the Northeast corridor.

Amtrak wasn't the only mass transit to see an increase in business while airports remained closed.

Dallas-based Greyhound Lines Inc. saw a 50 percent increase in riders last week, spokeswoman Kristin Parsley said. Business in the District increased 45 percent.

Conversely, rental-car companies saw business plummet as canceled flights caused reservations for cars to be canceled.

"We have to have the airlines flying," Hertz spokesman Rich Broome said.

Hertz Corp., which earns 90 percent of its revenue through car rentals at airports to business travelers and vacationers, and its revenue fell 40 percent last week. Rental-car companies saw an increase in one-way rentals, but not enough to offset losses from cancellations. Most rental-car companies waived fees usually charged for one-way rentals, a cost charged to customers who drop off a car in a city different than the one where they picked it up.

Now they have to get displaced cars back to the city they were rented from.

"It's a huge logistical nightmare, and it's very expensive. But we had to decide whether to sit on our cars or rent them to people who wanted to get home, and we decided to rent them," Mr. Broome said.

Amtrak has not calculated the effect of the increase in passengers on revenue.

Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead told Congress in July that Amtrak registered a cash loss, as opposed to its operating loss, in the first eight months of this year of $405 million. It had a cash loss last fiscal year of $561 million.

The size of the losses makes it unlikely the company will get by without subsidies after a 2002 deadline, Mr. Mead testified. Amtrak, formed by Congress when it cobbled together a group of failing passenger railroads, can't use federal funds after Dec. 2, 2002, to pay operating expenses. Congress has threatened to liquidate Amtrak if it can't sustain itself by then.

Amtrak President George Warrington said this week he does not know how long the increased demand for train service will last.

"But we will be prepared to handle whatever the future brings," he said.

Amtrak will need more than a short-term boost in riders to overcome financial problems, Mr. Till said, but if tightened security at U.S. airports forces longer lines and delays at ticket counters and security checkpoints, Amtrak may become a more attractive option for travelers unwilling to fight their way through airport terminals.

Others are more skeptical.

"It will be hard for Amtrak ever to drive the shuttles [operated by air carriers] to New York out of business," said a former federal transportation official who asked not to be identified. "There is no conceivable increase in ridership to come out of this crisis that would change Amtrak's financial outlook very much."

The Acela could help the rail carrier's financial outlook. Amtrak is relying on the high-speed train, which began service along the Northeast corridor Nov. 17, to generate $180 million in revenue annually. About 22.5 million people rode Amtrak last year, but it can handle about 45 million passengers annually.

Amtrak serves 45 states and more than 500 communities.

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