Published on Wednesday, September 13, 2000 in the Boston Globe
Going Forward:
Amtrak Reports Record Ridership
by Raphael Lewis
As thunderstorms wreaked havoc at the nation's airports this summer, Amtrak enjoyed a record-setting season for ridership and revenues.

Officials announced yesterday that more than 6.3 million passengers rode Amtrak trains in June, July, and August, as the airline industry announced it was reeling from the highest number of delayed and canceled flights ever. In August alone, 2.09 million people rode Amtrak trains, the highest monthly tally in 21 years.

As a result, the financially shaky railroad corporation pulled in a record $317.7 million this summer, up almost 17 percent over last summer, and is on track to break its record for annual ridership as well.

Still, the news was not all positive for Amtrak, which must operate free of federal subsidies by 2003 and will lose more than $200 million this year.

Nearly 11,000 riders, or five of every 1,000, demanded free-ride vouchers in August through the satisfaction guarantee program that had begun a month earlier. Worth a total of about $1 million, the vouchers were requested by twice as many passengers as in July and many more than the goal of 1-in-1,000 Amtrak set for itself.

In the Northeast, where trains arrived as scheduled 89 percent of the time, about 2,600 passengers asked for vouchers, and most cited late trains as the reason, said Karina Van Veen, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

Perhaps more troubling was the fact that nearly 300 passengers demanded vouchers after riding the new, more expensive Acela Regional train, a 125-mile-per-hour electric train that runs between New York and Boston.

The Acela Regional trains, which carried 72,000 people in August, and the late-in-arriving Acela Express are key to the railroad's future. When Acela Express finally goes into service after months of delays - officials say that will take place, in limited fashion, next month - Amtrak officials hope to woo more frustrated airline passengers.

But without reliable on-time performance, travelers may prefer to arrive late on their favorite airline instead.

''We have a lot of work to do here, and what the satisfaction guarantee does is give riders a sense that we care about them,'' said former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis, a member of Amtrak's board. ''We have to do it differently and we have to do it better, but if we do, our [revenue and rider] numbers will go up dramatically.''

David Fuscus, vice president of the Air Transport Association, the Washington-based airline trade organization, said Amtrak's record summer numbers didn't concern him.

''We saw 6 million passengers on the three days of the Labor Day weekend,'' Fuscus said. ''It's really apples and oranges in terms of scale. We always prefer that people fly, but we're not really looking over our shoulder.''

Mark Dysart, president of the High Speed Ground Transportation Association, a Washington-based railroad trade group, said he questioned the wisdom of Amtrak's satisfaction-guaranteed program - something none of the airlines offers. Since Amtrak does not own most of the congested rail lines it uses outside the Northeast Corridor, he said, lateness is almost a given.

''I don't want to play Monday morning quarterback with this thing,'' Dysart said. ''But I think the solution is to come up with ways to increase capacity or start reviving some of the abandoned rail lines out there. Otherwise, they're going to keep bleeding money they can't afford to lose.''

Amtrak officials cited the guarantee program as a key reason for the jump in revenue and ridership this summer. Between Boston and Washington, ridership jumped 11 percent and revenue went up 22 percent.

''You have to spend money to save money,'' said Van Veen, the Amtrak spokeswoman. ''In the end, we'll more than make up the difference.''

Such optimism appeared to run rampant among Amtrak officials yesterday, a rare trait at the corporation that was formed by Congress in 1971 and quickly became an international laughingstock.

Dukakis said the record-setting summer could mark the beginning of a sea change in the attitude of a nation that embraced air travel 40 years ago and never looked back.

''What's happening at Amtrak is a response to what's happening at the congested airports and highways,'' Dukakis said.

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company