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Amtrak keeps rolling with help; loans and subsidies buy time for Texas Eagle Line.

Amtrak's Texas Eagle, a route that spans four states from Chicago through Little Rock to San Antonio, is anything but a money-maker. So why have so many elected officials, including Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey fought hard to keep the line open?

Dailey says that without the line, some people wouldn't be able to travel. Airfares are too expensive for some and others have vehicles that are unreliable for long trips, if they have an automobile at all, he says.

"They would not have some of the options to travel with their families that they are allowed to travel with through Amtrak," he says. "There are some real people who would be affected by [closing the line]."

Amtrak had planned to stop service along the Texas Eagle route in May, but a $5.5 million loan from the state of Texas, and a supplemental subsidy of about $22.5 million from the federal government last fall postponed the line's closure.

Dailey cites train travel as an affordable alternative to flying. However, airfares on many airlines that service the Little Rock National Airport are not any more expensive than train tickets. Take a round-trip ticket to Dallas from Little Rock on Southwest Airlines, for example. Calling up on a Friday to order a ticket for a Saturday flight costs $141. An Amtrak ticket bought under the same circumstances costs $142.

The only noticeable difference is that the traveler who takes the airplane will be in Dallas about five hours sooner than the one who rides the rail.

The number of passengers taking to the air instead of riding the rail in Little Rock alone is staggering.

In April, the number of people boarding a TWA flight from Little Rock was more than 13,000. For Delta the number was about 25,600, and for Southwest almost 34,000 people got on a plane in Little Rock.

From October 1995 through September 1996, about 8,700 boarded the Amtrak in Little Rock. Statewide only 16,000 people bought tickets for the train for that year.

Even Dailey reluctantly admits that he hasn't ridden the Texas Eagle.

"I have not. That's one of the things that I am planning on doing."

The passenger figures in Arkansas alone illustrate that the Texas Eagle, like all but one of Amtrak's routes throughout the country, is a money loser. Amtrak officials will quickly admit the only route it operates that makes a profit is the Metro Line from New York to Washington D.C.

Annually, since 1990, Amtrak has lost more than $700 million and has never operated without a loss since its inception in 1971. Last year the national passenger rail carrier lost $764 million.

Rail Welfare

Ticket sales aren't what keep Amtrak trains rolling. Federal subsidies do.

Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman, says the federal government's goal is to phase out all subsidies to Amtrak by 2002, but the problem is with the speed in which the reductions are taking place.

"Our funds from the federal government are continually diminishing," he says. Congress wants us to be self-sufficient by 2002 but it has not given us the tools to do that. Passenger service has never been profitable. It was not profitable for freight railroads, and it's not profitable for us. The unprofitable nature Of this business is what has caused the need for federal funds."

Last fall Sen. Dale Bumpers argued against Amtrak's decisions to discontinue the Texas Eagle route before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that was considering the fate of congressional aid to Amtrak. Throughout his testimony Bumpers said Amtrak needs to be part of a national rail system. He said closing the line from Chicago to San Antonio or any other line, would not be in the best future interest of the United States because mass transit will by necessary to wean consumers from their dependence on imported oil.

Dailey, who also testified before the Senate subcommittee, says he agrees with the need to create and maintain a national rail system.

"Looking down the long haul, looking to the future, the United States, even the less populated areas like Arkansas, must be looking at passenger rail transportation as part of a national system," he says. "We see how it works in other countries and in other parts of the United States. It just hasn't been that big of an issue for a lot of the less densely populated parts of the country."

The amount of taxes required to see government build and maintain highways is growing to the point of being prohibitive, Dailey says. A national rail system could offer the alternative to expensive road work that must be done for the continues reliance on vehicular travel, he says.

Reliance on mass transit is something that both Bumpers and Dailey agree the American public isn't accustomed to, however.

Along the Texas Eagle route in Arkansas and Texas, Amtrak uses Union Pacific rails to travel. The freight trains get precedence, which forces Amtrak to pull off the main track and allow the others to pass.

On a recent return trip from Dallas, the Texas Eagle was about an hour and a half behind schedule because of a forced 125-mile detour around a freight train wreck in Texas.

The snack lounge bustles with passengers who find a third unscheduled stop to allow a freight train to pass between Marshall, Texas, and Texarkana an excuse to get up and walk down for a hot dog and soda or a cup of coffee.

"Haven't you already had your meal?" asks Ron Thompson, a crew member who has been running the snack lounge, or as he calls it, "the Panic Box," for about 13 hours straight. He started his shift at 6:30 a.m., just before the train rolled out of the San Antonio station.

"I'm not a buffet," he tells a teenaged girl who is a passenger in the sleeper car, thus giving her a claim to one prepaid meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "You get one meal per mealtime. I can't let everybody in here keep coming back and getting more and more without paying, ma'am."

He agrees to let her slide by with an extra chicken salad sandwich, a bag of potato chips and a soft drink this time, but warns her not to come back down to the car without money to pay next time.

The snack "lounge" is really only the bottom part of one of the passenger cars that has bathrooms on one end and two couches, a counter, a freezer and a couple of microwave ovens at the other end. For the past few months, in anticipation of closing the line, Amtrak has operated the Texas Eagle without a diner car or a club car. Passengers in sleeper cars are normally allowed to get one sit-down, restaurant-style meal per mealtime.

"We're running a reduced line," Thompson explains to the girl's mother who just came into the snack lounge to vent.

"I don't appreciate what you said," she says to Thompson. "This has been a horrible trip."

Thompson agrees.

"I've paid for my tickets, and the federal government gives you $500 million a year, and we have to eat our meals out of a microwave."

"We're running a reduced service, ma'am," he explains. "Our diner car will be back on line June 7. Until then, I'm the only one running food service for everybody on the train. You need to get your facts straight, ma'am. Amtrak has not been given $500 million from the government. That's the problem."

"Well, this has been a bad day and a horrible trip," she concludes before leaving the Panic Box. Thompson says he couldn't agree more.

For fiscal year 1997, the government has given Amtrak $225.5 million in operating subsidies and another $156 million in the form of excess railroad retirement taxes and federal capital expenditures.

The amount of money spent to subsidize Amtrak's existence is another argument Bumpers has used to fight closing any of the company's lines in the United States.

Playing the part of a taxpayer in Arkansas who may face not having access to the Texas Eagle, Bumpers asks, "Why should our tax funds be used to subsidize a rail system that my family will never ride? It is hard to think of an answer other than they should not."

Looking to the States

Magliari says states along the Texas Eagle route have been targeted by Amtrak for additional sources of revenue, as Congress cuts back funds. The loan from Texas is only the latest move for money to keep the route open, he says. Amtrak is negotiating with officials in Missouri for a contract to help support the Texas Eagle from St. Louis to the Arkansas state line south of Poplar Bluff.

Missouri currently gives money to support a line from St. Louis to Kansas City, he says. And Illinois is involved in a three-year deal with Amtrak that puts about $7 million a year into the operation of the Texas Eagle from Chicago to St. Louis and other short-lines in that state. In 2000, Illinois' commitment will increase to $7.95 million, Magliari says.

Arkansas is the only state along the line that doesn't contribute any public dollars to Amtrak.

Dailey says he spoke to Gov. Mike Huckabee before the 81st General Assembly about state efforts to save the Texas Eagle. The discussions didn't include any talks about chipping in tax dollars, Dailey says.

Rex Nelson, a spokesman for Huckabee, says the governor will fight for continued federal dollars to support Amtrak and the Texas Eagle, but he likely will not embrace any plan to provide state tax dollars for its operation as part of his administration.

Dailey says Arkansans have taken the passenger train for granted and must look for ways to support the service in the future. He points to six signs that the city of Little Rock paid $50 a piece for that have been put up around town with directions to the Amtrak station as a start in the commitment to Amtrak.

The rest of the support for the Texas Eagle may have to come from people buying tickets, he admits.

Magliari says Amtrak is working to keep the line running by shifting national advertising dollars to local markets, including Arkansas. So far the strategy is showing a slight increase in the number of Arkansas passengers riding the train. For the first quarter of 1997, about 4,750 people have bought tickets to ride the train in Arkansas. If that many people continue to buy tickets through the remaining three quarters, about 19,000 tickets will be sold.

"We've been more in the react mode," Dailey says of efforts to save the line. "If we are getting close to a point where we are going to have any kind of long-term commitment to a passenger rail system ... then I think there are opportunities here in the state [for passenger support of Amtrak]."
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Author:Lee, Simon
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 16, 1997
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