Amtrak Backs Off Notice to Cut Service

Amtrak, citing signs of help from Congress, backed away Friday from its threat to issue notices that would allow it to cut its long-distance train network as early as this fall.

Instead, the railroad sent an update letter about its continuing quest to win $1.2 billion in federal funds for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The letters went to governors of the 46 states Amtrak serves.

Amtrak President George Warrington wrote that he is encouraged by the response of lawmakers. However, he added, "uncertainties associated with the legislative process" mean Amtrak must prepare for the possibility that it will not receive enough money to maintain current service.

He reiterated that the 18 trains in its long-distance network are "at high risk" and said other routes could also be cut if Amtrak's appropriation is too low.

The 18 trains serve Amtrak's longest routes and are among its biggest money-losers. Without them, travelers no longer could get on a train in the Northeast and connect all the way to California, or board in Florida and reach the Pacific Northwest.

Amtrak spokesman Bill Schulz said the intent of Warrington's letter was to warn the governors about Amtrak's uncertain future -- and the possibility of service cuts -- without creating confusion among prospective travelers that could result from elimination notices.

Warrington announced Feb. 1 that Amtrak would issue formal notices by March 29, reserving the authority to cut routes when the new fiscal year begins. Amtrak is generally required by law to give 180 days' notice before it discontinues train service.

But in his letter to the governors, Warrington said such formal notice is not necessary "in circumstances like this, where train service rests on the availability of federal appropriations."

Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead reported in January that Amtrak lost $1.1 billion in 2001, the most in its 30-year history, and had made no progress toward meeting Congress' 1997 order to wean itself from annual government operating subsidies by this December.

Since Warrington's February announcement, Amtrak has made headway in convincing federal officials that the nation's passenger rail system needs more money.

"My sense is that there's now a sense of urgency in Congress that wasn't there before," said Amtrak Vice Chairman Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts.

The Bush administration has proposed $521 million for Amtrak in fiscal year 2003, but Amtrak has received some key backing in its pleas for more money.

Mead said the railroad cannot maintain current operations with the funding proposed by Bush, the same amount Amtrak received this year. Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson told Congress it will take $2.5 billion to $3 billion in annual funding for rail "just to keep what we have."

And 28 senators have signed on to a bill by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., that would devote $4.6 billion a year for the next five years to Amtrak operations, renovations to Amtrak-owned tracks in the Northeast and development of new high-speed corridors around the country.

A new proposal in the works by House Transportation Committee leaders would authorize $1 billion for Amtrak's capital and operating expenses next year. Congress also would cover Amtrak's annual obligation -- about $160 million -- to pay benefits for rail industry retirees.

In exchange, Amtrak would have to begin submitting an annual business plan to the Department of Transportation listing ridership, revenue and expense targets for individual business units and long-distance trains.

A spokesman for House Railroad subcommittee chairman Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., said the bill would buy Congress one more year to come up with a long-term plan for Amtrak and passenger rail.