August 20, 2008

CHICAGO (Aug. 20)—U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said record-breaking numbers of Amtrak riders have stretched the national passenger railroad’s aging fleet to the limit and called on Congress to divert ¼ cent of the 18-cent Federal Motor Fuel Tax to a fund that would finance a long-term buildup of modern passenger rolling stock.

“I believe the Federal Motor Fuel Tax could spare that small amount for diversion into a passenger-car fund,” Durbin said. “It’s true we’ve got to support highways, but we already know that we can’t pave our way out of traffic congestion. If we were able to offer more travelers a seat on a train we wouldn’t need so much highway capacity.”

Flanked by Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant and Illinois Transportation Secretary Milt Sees, the state’s senior U.S. senator told a group of state rail administrators, legislators and community leaders he also wants to see much of America’s once-proud passenger-railcar industry re-established in Illinois.

“I come from a railroad family and worked on the railroad, and I remember when Illinois was not only a major player in the railroad industry but in the building of passenger railcars,” Durbin said. “I believe that day can come again. Today passenger rail cars are not built in the United States. All of that work is out-sourced to foreign manufacturers. We need to incentivize companies and investors to bring that work back to the United States.”

But Durbin noted that railcar builders are unlikely to open new facilities in this country until they are assured that Amtrak and the states have a dedicated funding source able to pay for a long-term railcar buildup that will keep their factories open.

Such a buildup cannot go forward now, Durbin said, because Amtrak must rely on annual congressional appropriations that are too small and unreliable to permit long-term planning and capital investment in a growing fleet. He said a ¼-cent diversion of the Federal Motor Fuel Tax could generate a continuing revenue stream adequate to replace all existing Amtrak cars and expand the size of the fleet as well.

Kummant said that while Amtrak has “about 25 single-level coaches” in storage that could be refurbished and returned to service at a cost of $750,000 each, its small congressional appropriation will permit only about 12 such cars to be refurbished per year. He said an additional 25 food-service cars could be returned to service at a cost of about $1 million each.

Kummant said changing travel preferences and high gasoline prices have driven new passengers to Amtrak in record numbers.

“Our ridership so far this year is up 12 per cent over 2007, and in July it was up 14 per cent,” he said. “On the Northeast Corridor it is up 40 per cent.”

But Kummant predicted that on some routes Amtrak’s ridership growth curve is about to flatten—not because of lack of demand but lack of capacity.

“We won’t be able to grow because we will be out of seats,” he said.

UYU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo said a flattening of capacity in Illinois cannot be tolerated because in addition to facing growing demand for seats on the Chicago-Carbondale, Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Quincy routes, the state plans to open a Chicago-Rockford-Dubuque line and a route from Chicago to the Quad Cities and is currently awaiting an Amtrak study on the feasibility of re-opening service between Chicago and Peoria.

“Dick Durbin’s call for a dedicated funding source and a fleet buildup is extremely timely,” Szabo said. “Amtrak’s capacity problems in Illinois have become acute.”

Durbin acknowledged that while the entire country needs more passenger-rail capacity, Illinois is in particularly severe straits because the doubling of train service that began in October 2006 has caused ridership to skyrocket.

“If you’ve tried to get a seat on an Amtrak train in Illinois recently, you may have found out that you can’t,” said. “Many of the trains are sold out, especially on weekends and holidays. If you’ve tried to reserve space for Thanksgiving, you probably won’t get it. Thanksgiving is the biggest travel holiday of the year, and right after Labor Day the airlines are going to reduce the number of flights.”

Amtrak board member Thomas Carper, formerly the mayor of Macomb, said the passenger-rail buildup Illinois undertook in 2006 has placed the state in the national spotlight.

“People used to talk about the ‘California model’ of passenger-train development,” Carper said. “But just as I was named to the board they started talking about the ‘Illinois model.’ People keep asking me, ‘What did you people do?’ It just makes sense that this is not going to stop—that people don’t want to get in their cars and make that 250-mile trip to Chicago by highway anymore.”

Durbin agreed but said many of his congressional colleagues still don’t understand how the rising price of oil is endangering the nation’s mobility.

“This Thanksgiving is going to be an eye-opener for America,” he said. “When people can’t get seats on a plane and can’t get seats on a train, they are going to turn to Congress and ask, ‘Why didn’t you see this coming?’”