- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

Amtrak plans to stop carrying mail in October as it refocuses on its core business of transporting passengers.

“The profit margin is small and we feel that making these changes will improve our bottom line, make the trains more efficient,” Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said yesterday.

The U.S. Postal Service has used passenger trains to carry mail since 1831, when some of the first regular passenger rail service started in the United States.

The national passenger railroad carries mostly bulk mail under a $60 million per year contract with the U.S. Postal Service.

Most of the mail, which Mr. Black calls “a lot of magazines,” is carried on long-distance routes. Some first-class mail is carried shorter distances.

Amtrak informed the Postal Service of its decision last week. The Postal Service yesterday did not return phone calls on the issue.

Mr. Black said “interference with passenger train operations” compelled Amtrak’s management to curtail the contract.

The interference includes delays from coupling and uncoupling freight rail cars to passenger trains. Amtrak also has to divert some of its resources to maintenance of the rail cars.

Amtrak is under pressure from the Bush administration to operate more efficiently. The administration proposes giving Amtrak a $900 million annual subsidy when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Amtrak officials say the $900 million figure is about half the amount they need and could force the railroad to shut down before next summer. It operates with a $1.2 billion budget this year.

The Bush administration does not oppose Amtrak’s decision to end its mail service.

“That’s an internal Amtrak decision,” said Steve Kulm, Federal Railroad Administration spokesman. “The more they focus on their core business of moving people, the better off they’re going to be.”

Stopping mail service might represent a historical precedent, but would not significantly change the railroad’s operations, Amtrak officials said.

Before passenger trains started carrying mail, “a lot of it was still by stagecoach,” said Nancy Pope, historian for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum.

The nation’s freight railroads continue to carry mail through their “intermodal” service, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

Intermodal means truck trailers are uncoupled, loaded onto flatbed rail cars and reconnected to trucks when they arrive for a shorter trip to their final destination.

Ending mail service on Amtrak is likely to shift more bulk mail to freight railroads, long-haul trucks and airline service, said Tom White, AAR spokesman.

“It really depends on what the Postal Service’s needs are,” Mr. White said.

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