Trains For America

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Amtrak CEO Kummant talks to Newsweek about ridership, HSR, and the economy

Newsweek published an interview with Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant on its website today. While nothing he says or advocates is particularly revolutionary, it’s interesting to see where the company stands on certain issues during this critical time for passenger rail. Here are some excerpts:


Passenger rail systems across parts of Europe and Asia are the most intricate and reliable in the world. Why not here?
If you look at federal money spent on infrastructure, things are very different here versus there. In the end, it’s an issue of political lists and how high oil prices have to get to really motivate a return to the role of federal government, which is to build out vital infrastructure. We all love high-speed rail, and of course we want it here, but people forget that in Europe, there’s a base system that runs at high speeds, like you can see in Germany. It’s that base speed that we need to start building.

Transportation spending is often tied closely to the economy. Why invest in rail in particular, as opposed to other modal infrastructure?
If you want to really talk about a stimulus package for the economy, investing in rail is wonderful. There are local jobs and local materials. It’s good for steel plants, we can train people. There’s a heck of a lot of technology in the rail world, more so than a lot of people realize. From a stimulus point of view, from a jobs point of view, it’s fabulous. With high energy prices, we’re also going to see pretty dramatic realignments in real-estate value and even faster resurgence of city centers, which helps the housing market, too.

High costs have been a strong deterrent to the service. Will increased ridership translate to changes in ticket prices?
Well, this year, we’re going to grow more than 10 percent in ridership. We’re near sell-out conditions on some of the trains, like on the Northeast Corridor [between Boston and Washington]. Changes in ticket prices is really a public-policy question that the taxpayers and the Congress need to decide. But we’re working hard on increasing efficiency.

Speed is certainly factor in how people choose to get around. The top American trains go 150mph. European trains top 200.
Those trains run on dedicated right-of-ways reserved just for them. We’d love to be the TGV if we had a spare hundred billion dollars to create separate right-of-ways and spend the next 20 years in court on eminent-domain proceedings to build out in some of the most densely populated areas. I believe that there will eventually be high speed in the country like that, but it’ll probably start farther west where they’ll be less trouble putting in dedicated routes.

Particularly interesting was his comment about rail and city centers. As homes closer to the urban core become more attractive to consumers, the centrally located train stations are going to seem a lot more appealing than the exurban mega-airports, where getting to the terminal is practically a trip in itself.

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