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Amtrak Eyes New Route

APR 12, 2010 7:05pm ET
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WASHINGTON — Amtrak wants to become a major player in creating a national high-speed rail network, as states continue to jockey for funding from the federal government and potentially offer up their own bonds to help cover construction costs.

The board of directors of Amtrak, a 40-year-old national rail corporation that operates most of the country’s interstate passenger trains, voted last month to create a new department devoted to intercity high-speed rail corridors.

Amtrak officials said yesterday that they are still putting together the unit and do not yet have details about the group’s structure or plans.

The department’s agenda, however, will include plans for “major improvements” to the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., such as increasing service frequency and studying the feasibility of bringing train speeds up to 220 miles per hour, a roughly 70-mile-per-hour increase over current Amtrak Acela speeds.

The department also expects to ­pursue partnerships with states including ­California and Florida, darlings of the current high-speed rail initiative. The two states received a total of $3.75 billion of grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help them move ­forward with planned bullet-train lines.

The Amtrak board of directors that approved the new high-speed rail group includes U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who has helped usher in the Obama administration’s rail plan.

The administration announced large grants totaling $8 billion for planned high-speed rail projects in California, Florida, and Midwestern states in ­January.

Amtrak assisted states during the grant application process, said Steve Kulm, a spokesman for Amtrak. The rail entity carried 27.2 million passengers in fiscal 2009 and operates 21,000 route miles in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Given its role in the nation’s existing rail landscape, Amtrak has helped states with ridership and revenue projections, Kulm said.

“The primary focus has been on the states having control because they’re the ones who applied and received that $8 billion,” he said. But $4.5 billion of the total $8 billion went not to high-speed rail, but to existing routes that Amtrak operates or is likely to operate in the future, he added.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has criticized the awarding of high-speed rail funds to Amtrak-operated routes, partly due to Amtrak’s “money-losing operations.”

Mica, who favors private-sector participation in development, construction, financing, and operating a high-speed rail network, said in a recent interview that he was “very deeply disappointed” that high-speed rail grants would benefit Amtrak.

However, Kulm stresses that none of the funds are going directly to Amtrak. Also, some observers and rail proponents argue that Amtrak could be the most prepared to operate the new lines.

“Amtrak will benefit from the fact that it has established relationships with governors and departments of transportation,” said Michael S. Wojnar, a senior adviser at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP here.

Amtrak’s role in high-speed rail will be primarily operational, not financial, Kulm said. “Amtrak’s not going to pay for [rail construction] in California,” for example, he said.

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