State funding deal
USA: Responding to an 88% increase in ridership on state-supported inter-city services between 1996 and 2006, the Department of Transportation has unveiled a grant programme to support efforts by individual states to fund enhancements to passenger rail operations. 'Rail passengers demand improved service and quality and this grant programme will allow states to address these concerns', commented Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph H Boardman.
Previously federal grants had only been available for investment in local transport and commuter rail, although the administration has been keen to transfer responsibility for inter-city services from the federal budget to the states.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has made available $30m to match local funding on a 50:50 basis, giving a potential pot of $60m. She suggested this could be used for track and signalling upgrades, new or lengthened passing loops or for the purchase of new rolling stock. Critics say this is a drop in the ocean, pointing out that hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, are needed to refurbish or replace ageing assets and expand services if inter-city rail is to play a meaningful role in America's future transport mix.
Reflecting the scale of the problem, Amtrak President & CEO Alexander Kummant has requested $1·67bn in subsidy for the 2009 financial year. Describing the request as 'responsible and realistic,' he explained that it would provide $506m for operating support and $801m for capital projects. He reiterated that ridership is at an all-time high and said Amtrak will continue to improve its efficiency. But rising fuel prices and labour costs plus a massive programme to replace defective concrete sleepers on the Northeast Corridor will be expensive.
Kummant emphasised the need to start a rolling stock replacement programme, using some of the 2009 capital budget for 'pilot programmes, the procurement of new equipment for short-distance corridor service, and the testing or demonstration of new equipment for the Northeast Corridor'. Other expenses include a deal with the unions for $114m in back pay to employees who worked for nearly eight years without a salary increase.
It seems likely that Amtrak will get more than the $800m allocated in President Bush's budget proposals, but Congressman John W Olver, who chairs the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, said money will be tight and he won't be able to find as much as the railway needs.