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Public Support Strong for Continued Amtrak Investment

Washington Post poll: Americans overwhelmingly support continued passenger rail investment

Amtrak Subsidy Support Strong, Survey Shows
Respondents Back More Aid To Increase Rail Service

By Don Phillips and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 5, 2002; Page A01

A large majority of Americans favor continuing federal subsidies to Amtrak, and a substantial percentage would increase federal funding so the ailing passenger railroad can increase service, according to a Washington Post poll.

The survey showed that pro-Amtrak sentiment was somewhat stronger in the Northeast, which already has extensive train service, but all sections of the country were solidly in the Amtrak camp. All age groups, education levels and household incomes were in favor of Amtrak subsidies and the 18-to-34 age group supported the subsidies overwhelmingly.

The popular support demonstrated by the poll, as well as continuing congressional support for Amtrak, shows that the administration probably would have difficulty pushing through any program that leads to abandoning Amtrak routes or trains. It also may help explain why members of Congress and other politicians from across the country have supported Amtrak for many years, even when their states or districts have only one train that passes through in the middle of the night.

Thirty-one years after it was formed to save the passenger train, Amtrak faces possible restructuring and cutbacks. The Bush administration extracted several concessions from Amtrak last month when it approved a $100 million loan to help keep the railroad running for a few more weeks, mainly promises of more detailed financial information.

Weary of Amtrak's continuing losses, including $1.1 billion last year, the administration has also said it would ask for more concessions in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Absent the concessions, the administration would recommend that Congress give Amtrak $521 million, the same as this year, but less than half of what the railroad says it needs.

The administration has not yet said what the concessions will be, but Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta has outlined several principles for Amtrak reform, including having states assume some subsidies now paid by the federal government, and franchising some routes to private operators.

The poll was taken July 26 through July 30, after Congress had decided to grant Amtrak a no-strings $205 million supplemental appropriation to keep running through the end of September, and after the Senate voted in favor of the full $1.2 billion Amtrak had requested for the next fiscal year. The survey period also included the July 29 wreck of the Capitol Limited at Kensington.

A total of 1,012 randomly selected adults were interviewed in a national survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Respondents first were asked:

"The passenger train service Amtrak lost over a billion dollars last year and relies on loans and subsidies from the federal government to keep running. Which of these three options would you favor? 1. End all federal aid to Amtrak, even if it means that passenger train service in some parts of the country will be shut down? 2. Increase federal aid to Amtrak so it can add more trains and routes, even if it means Amtrak might lose even more money? 3. Keep federal aid to Amtrak at current levels."

Fifty-one percent said keep funding at current levels, 20 percent said increase aid, 17 percent said end all aid, and 13 percent answered "don't know."

Those who said keep funding at current levels were then asked another question:

"If you had to choose, are you more inclined to end all federal aid to Amtrak or to increase federal aid to Amtrak?"

Of that group, 58 percent said they leaned toward increased funding, 29 percent said they leaned toward cutting all funding, and 13 percent answered, "don't know."

When the two questions are combined, 49 percent are leaning toward or favoring increased Amtrak funding, 31 percent favor or lean toward cutting Amtrak, 7 percent would leave funding as is, and 13 percent don't know.

Respondents identifying themselves as Democrats expressed far stronger sentiments than those identifying themselves as Republicans, although more Republicans supported Amtrak than favored cutting federal subsidies.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael P. Jackson, who is handling Amtrak negotiations, said the broad pro-passenger sentiment of the poll results is in line with administration sentiment, but disagrees that the federal government has to provide all the money.

"If I was going to design a poll, I would have asked different questions," he said in an interview. "The question is not about federal aid as such but about how you structure a reliable passenger train system." That can include operational efficiencies, business discipline and state partnerships, he said.

"What this suggests is the American people believe passenger rail is an important part of our transportation system," he said. "The administration believes that passenger rail is an important part of our transportation system." But he said the poll "doesn't support the conclusion that full federal funding is the only thing that would be popular with the American people."

Twana Jones, 33, of New York, who responded to a Post poll earlier in July in which people were asked about their travel habits, including their attitude toward Amtrak, said she had taken two personal Amtrak trips in the past few years, one of them as far as Kansas City, Mo. "I enjoyed the trip, but it takes a long time," she said. Jones said Amtrak needs to speed up the service, but "I certainly don't think they need to cut any of the service. I want them to add more routes to it."

John Cebrookes, 57, a respondent who lives in Florida, said he enjoyed two Amtrak trips over the past few years. "Don't cut them off," he said. "Let the trains keep running.

Craig Smiley, 66, of Birmingham, Ala., said he took one trip on Amtrak years ago to Detroit and found it "beautiful."

Ron Kessler, 55, of Boston, said he takes frequent trips to New York and Washington and had tried the train once. "But the problem is they don't run very often and you get out of a meeting early, you don't have an option," he said.

Kessler said that that if there were plans to vastly expand service, he might be more favorable to Amtrak, but "if we are so far from that, should we just say the hell with it?" He said he has decided, therefore, that it would be best to just cut funding.

Joseph Vranich, author of "Derailed: What Went Wrong and What to Do About America's Passenger Trains," and one of Amtrak's severest critics, said he was not surprised by the poll results, but argued that there should be a distinction between saving passenger rail and saving Amtrak. He said he strongly favors passenger train service, such as California's burgeoning intercity system, but opposes Amtrak as the operating company.

"There's a blurring of the issue of having good rail passenger service and keeping Amtrak going," he said. "The public has the feeling that to have passenger trains they have to have Amtrak."

Thomas Till, executive director of the Amtrak Reform Council, which was formed in 1997 to determine if Amtrak could become self-sufficient, agreed and said people also misunderstood the council's report as being anti-passenger-train. The council last year said Amtrak would not meet its mandate from Congress to become self-sufficient and made several recommendations, including separating ownership of the Northeast Corridor infrastructure from Amtrak.

He said the poll showed "the same kind of sentiment that came out of the council, in favor of increased passenger service."

Till said the public is "not aware of the institutional nature of Amtrak." He said that to thrive, the passenger train needs new institutions rather than maintaining Amtrak in charge of all service.

Rail historian John Hankey, former curator of the Baltimore & Ohio Museum in Baltimore, said the strong support for passenger trains expressed in the poll is particularly striking because Amtrak has long been swept by political battles and budgetary problems that have led to service shortcomings.

"These opinions are being formed in spite of the political climate and what's happening to Amtrak, and that colors them even more favorably," Hankey said. "This is a real testimony to the enduring power of passenger train travel."

Two weeks earlier, as part of another poll, The Post asked respondents if they had ever ridden an Amtrak passenger train. Almost one-third of the respondents said they had, although most had taken only one or two trips on Amtrak, and 80 percent of the trips were for pleasure rather than business.

Only 25 percent of those who had ever ridden an Amtrak train had done so in the past year, and only 3.5 percent had taken five or more trips in the past year.

Complete data:

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