- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2008

Amtrak is on track to add cars to Acela, the fastest U.S. passenger train, and raise fares as riders fill coaches on the Washington-to-Boston route.

Amtrak head Alexander Kummant said demand for the high-speed service will likely spur Amtrak to levy a surcharge to help buy additional equipment.

“We’re out of capacity,” said Mr. Kummant “Most people know that’s a pretty tough ticket” because seats are hard to find except at “way-off-peak” times.

The Acela’s top speed of 150 miles per hour is drawing travelers who want to avoid rising airfares and highway congestion in the Northeast U.S. Acela ridership climbed 7.7 percent in the first 10 months of fiscal 2008, part of Amtrak’s 11 percent gain.

Amtrak started Acela service in December 2000. Each train consists of two locomotives and six passenger cars, and can make the 228-mile trip between New York and Washington in 2 hours, 28 minutes.

Amtrak would consider lengthening the Acela by adding “a couple additional cars” to the trains, Mr. Kummant said, a process he said would come “with difficulty.”

The trains now run with an engine at each end. While that step speeds turnarounds when the Acela finishes its route and then reverses direction, reconfiguring trains to add coaches would be “very difficult and very time consuming,” spokeswoman Karina Romero said.

Amtrak also doesn’t have any spare Acela passenger cars, so extending the trains would require buying more custom-built coaches, she said.

“We can’t just call up a train manufacturer and order another Acela,” Ms. Romero said. The trains are made by Bombardier Inc. and Alstom SA. Amtrak can operate its full Acela schedule of 32 weekday departures with as many as two of its 20 trains out of service, Ms. Romero said.

Acela ridership rose 20 percent to 3.19 million passengers in the 2007 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said. That was almost one third of all the travelers on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which includes New York.

Revenue from Acela fares was $403.5 million, or 27 percent of Amtrak’s ticket sales. Acela tickets can be more than twice as expensive as those for slower, so-called regional trains between Washington and New York.

Amtrak adjusts prices much like airlines do, trying to match fares to supply and demand, Mr. Kummant said.

Trains are “running full and the demand is there,” said David R. Johnson, deputy director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers consumer group. “They have been under pressure to act like a business, and this is how private business acts.”

Higher fares alone wouldn’t produce enough money to expand the Acela, for which Amtrak agreed to pay $800 million in 1996 for 20 trains and maintenance. Such a step would require more funding for Amtrak, a “political football” that has struggled for aid in President George W. Bush’s administration, said Mr. Kummant, who became CEO in September 2006.

“If you ride Amtrak you might see $1 on your ticket or something that would go to an equipment fund,” Mr. Kummant said of a possible surcharge, without giving a total amount.

“It’s an idea; we don’t know how a structure like that might work,” he said. “We’ve got an incredible number of constraints on how we manage capital, what we’re allowed to carry over year to year, which of course makes capital planning very difficult.”

Amtrak’s federal funding for the fiscal year that ends next month is $1.2 billion. It hasn’t turned an annual profit since being created by Congress in 1970.

Amtrak is also talking with state governments about fare increases in places where state subsidies keep ticket prices lower, Mr. Kummant said.

The railroad may see its star rise should the Obama-Biden ticket win the White House in November. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democratic U.S. senator from Delaware, is famous for his Amtrak commutes between Wilmington and Washington, and his son, Hunter, serves on Amtrak’s board.

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