- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

The survival of Amtrak rides on providing reliable, on-time service between major cities, the railroad’s new boss told lawmakers yesterday.

But to meet this goal, the ailing passenger rail service must find new sources of money to supplement the billion-plus federal dollars it receives annually, said Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Alex Kummant.

“You just can’t escape that the answer is capital,” Mr. Kummant said during a House Transportation and Infrastructure railroads subcommittee hearing. “There is no other magic bullet.”

Mr. Kummant, who took control of Amtrak Sept. 12, offered few specifics on how to improve the railroad. But he said issuing bonds, securing state financing or wooing private investors are possibilities.

“I don’t know what the right answer is,” he said. “We just need to take a look at all the options.”

The Senate has backed a plan to boost annual Amtrak subsidies to $1.4 billion, while the House has approved a $1.1 billion budget. The Bush administration wants to split up Amtrak, shift some of the cost of operations to states and significantly cut federal subsidies.

Even the Senate’s more generous proposal isn’t enough to pay for needed infrastructure, such as bridge and tunnel improvements, that could help alleviate frequent delays that have plagued the railroad for years, Mr. Kummant said.

Amtrak, which carries 22 million riders a year, also must work with freight carriers, which own and share most of the tracks Amtrak uses, to devise better schedules between passenger and freight trains.

“At a time of high oil prices, growing highway and airport congestion … we should be embracing rail and developing it as quickly and as responsibly as we can,” Mr. Kummant said. “We should go beyond the debate of a few hundred million dollars of operating costs and begin to realize the potential rail passenger service has to offer with the right level of investment.”

Amtrak’s future lies with its “rail corridors” — service between large cities 300 to 500 miles apart — the railroad’s fastest-growing service, he said.

“I hope that in my time at Amtrak we will continue to see more corridor growth and the realization of a federal and state funding partnership for these corridors,” Mr. Kummant said.

Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican, said Amtrak must look at possibly privatizing its popular Northeast Corridor, which is among the railroad’s most successful routes.

“The Northeastern Corridor is very important — it’s the only real hard asset you’ve got,” said Mr. Mica, a longtime proponent of privatizing at least a portion of Amtrak. “Simple math will tell you you’re not going to get ahead building your infrastructure” without private money.

Mr. Kummant said he had no immediate plans for the Northeast corridor.

“The only mandate I have from the [Amtrak] board is to run a safe and efficient railroad,” he said.

Rep. Leonard L. Boswell, Iowa Democrat, urged Mr. Kummant not to forsake rural routes on behalf of corridor service.

“I understand the importance of the East Coast and the West Coast, but we’re a United States and we have to connect together,” Mr. Boswell said.

Mr. Kummant, who previously served as regional vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad, the biggest U.S. railroad, inherits a rail service with a bumpy past and uncertain future.

Amtrak never has been profitable since it was created by Congress in 1971, acquiring debt of more than $3.5 billion. Its operating loss its last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2005, topped $550 million.

Amtrak’s former top executive, David L. Gunn, was fired in November after opposing the Bush administration’s proposal to break up the railroad. David Hughes served as interim CEO.

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