DESPITE the vote on November 9 by the Amtrak Reform Council to start proceedings that could end up liquidating Amtrak (RG 12.01 p799), such a drastic move now looks unlikely. Within a week of the Council’s action, a group of 21 Republican and Democrat Senators vowed to prevent the annihilation of Amtrak. The lawmakers, mainly from the Northeast where Amtrak has been most successful, wrote a strongly-worded letter to President George Bush asking the government to reassure the railway’s creditors that shutting down the company was not an option. So far Bush has been non-committal other than to indicate that a high speed rail plan will be part of his budget proposal to be unveiled early this year. In early December, four bills that would expand US passenger railways and fund high speed routes continued to languish in Congress.

Meanwhile, sober assessment of Amtrak’s claims of substantially higher ridership following the September 11 terrorist attacks indicates they were overly optimistic. Figures released by the Amtrak Reform Council at the end of November show that actual ridership across the network was lower by 6% in September and 1% in October compared with the same periods a year earlier. Amtrak said the railway’s estimate that boardings were up 17% in the week following the tragedy was based on the number of tickets sold. As it turns out, the number of trips made was much less because people who had already booked cancelled and cashed in their tickets.

It is clear that Amtrak still did much better in October than domestic airlines, which estimate their business fell by 23%. Amtrak traffic in the Northeast Corridor certainly did increase because the Boston - New York - Washington air shuttle was severely curtailed, but this did not offset a national trend to stay close to home. During October, up to 10 weekday NEC trains were fully booked in both classes, and on December 10, Amtrak added a ninth weekday Acela Express between Boston and New York. The railway now predicts that once all 20 sets are in operation, Acela Express will carry about 3·9 million riders a year, generating $300m in revenue, with net earnings of $180m.

  • Amtrak inaugurated The Downeaster service between Portland, Maine and Boston on December 14. A special train picked up VIPs, including Amtrak Acting Chairman Michael Dukakis, at stations along the 183 km route that last saw passenger trains in 1966.