Seats are scarce on Amtrak's Empire Builderby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
President-elect Obama is giving passenger rail service a public relations lift it hasn't had since Lincoln. The Obama family will duplicate Abraham Lincoln's inaugural train trip to Washington, D.C. The first family-to-be probably won't have much trouble getting tickets. That is not the case for some other American train travelers especially folks wanting the ride the Empire Builder, the Amtrak train that traverses Minnesota.
St. Paul, Minn. — If the train is full the solution, it seems, would be to hook on a couple more cars. Chicago-based Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says it's not that simple.
"We have not had a significant increase in fleet size since the '90's. There simply aren't enough cars to meet all the demands all the time," he says
The beginning of the end of the nation's once mighty passenger rail service can be traced to lots of events including railroad deregulation in l980.
That's when the nation's railroads won the right from Congress to keep and expand their lucrative freight hauling business and to jettison their money losing passenger rail business.
The job of hauling people fell to Amtrak, a quasi-public corporation created by Congress 38 years ago. Amtrak was given what some transportation experts consider an impossible mission not duplicated anywhere else in the world; carry passengers while weaning itself from government subsidy.
The government subsidies continue, and in an effort to contain costs Amtrak has whittled itself down to a skeletal service in many parts of the country.
Still, Amtrak refuses to die, fueled in large measure by demand from customers who by necessity or choice want to ride the rails. Amtrak ridership has been rising the past six years. Amtrak officials say if it were an airline it would rank 8th in passengers carried.
No Amtrak line is more popular than the venerable Empire Builder. Named after the St. Paul rail magnate James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern railroad, the Empire Builder carries passengers from Chicago to the West Coast.
"The Empire Builder is our single most popular overnight train. Of all our trains in the system that operate over significant distances the Empire Builder is number one with upwards of 500,000 passengers on it," he says.
Passenger rail appears to be entering a new era. Proposals are sprouting all over the country for restoration of trains.
Congress seems to be paying attention. An Amtrak bill passed in the U.S. House last year authorizes $680 million a year for the next five years. The money, if approved by Congress and the President funds high speed rail and inter-city rail projects.
Rep. James Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, wants the two national programs to help build a system that uses Chicago as a regional rail hub for lines including service to Minnesota. More than money is needed though.
A batch of arcane rules put rail at a disadvantage over road building need to be repealed, according to Rick Harnish, the executive director of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
Harnish says road builders are in a better position to take advantage of the stimulus money Congress and President-elect Obama are proposing. The reason is rail builders are prohibited from planning unless there's actually money for the project, he says.
"There are no railroad projects ready to go because nobody's been allowed to do the planning. But on the highway side there's all kinds of projects ready to go just because they're allowed to do the planning," he says.
There's another challenge. The freight rail companies, not Amtrak, own most of the track passenger rail trains use. Any attempt by Amtrak to respond to rising ridership demand requires not only more money for more cars and locomotives and but also more money to buy time on track owned by the freight companies.
- Morning Edition, 12/22/2008, 7:35 a.m.