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More aboard! Amtrak weighs improvements

Amtrak, the country's only major passenger train system, is re-examining timetables and finding other ways to improve its 15 national routes to bring in more riders and revenue.
Image: Bill Gill, Beth McCray Gill
Bill Gill and his wife, Beth McCray Gill, watch as the Lake Shore Limited comes to a complete stop prior to boarding before dawn at the Amtrak station in Toledo, Ohio, on March 26.J.D. Pooley / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In many states, travelers who take Amtrak's long-distance trains for vacations or out-of-state business trips board in the middle of the night and return home from such cities as Chicago or New York City at times that are just as inconvenient.

But some improvements are on the way. Amtrak, the country's only major passenger train system, is re-examining timetables and finding other ways to improve its 15 national routes to bring in more riders and revenue. Among those under review are two routes that dip into Ohio and are practically hidden at night, their trains passing through when most people are sleeping.

Businessman Dave Shreiner, 63, typically boards around 1:30 a.m. at a tiny Amtrak stop in Alliance, Ohio. He travels exclusively by rail half of the year, visiting clients around the U.S.

"It makes planning a trip a challenge," Shreiner said.

The push for upgrades comes as Amtrak is on pace for record ridership this year, carrying a best-ever 13.6 million passengers in the first half of fiscal year 2010. That's a 4.3-percent increase over the same period last year, and 100,000 more than 13.5 million posted in the first half of 2008, Amtrak's previous highest ridership of 28.7 million passengers.

Amtrak cites an improving economy and high fuel prices as factors in ridership growth.

Stimulus money
President Barack Obama is also giving $8 billion in stimulus money to 13 high-speed rail projects and 31 states, though Amtrak's role in those projects is murky, since states will control the funds. Some of the projects are years away from completion.

In the meantime, Amtrak is putting all of its long-distance routes under review through 2012, including five this year.

They include the Cardinal, a train that stops in Cincinnati three days a week on its way between Chicago and New York City; and the Capitol Limited, a daily train between Chicago and Washington, D.C., that stops in Ohio at Toledo, Sandusky, Elyria, Cleveland and Alliance.

Also being reviewed are the Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio), the California Zephyr (Chicago-Emeryville, Calif.) and the Sunset Limited (Los Angeles-New Orleans).

Schedule, service upgrade
Shreiner would like to see Amtrak offer more convenient boarding times in Ohio, along with a new state-supported line from Cleveland to Cincinnati. Obama gave Ohio $400 million in stimulus money to buy trains and get them running on existing freight tracks by 2012, but the plan is at a stalemate as several key Republican state lawmakers question whether the ridership potential is strong enough.

Since the Amtrak reviews began, some small changes are already noticeable. On the Coast Starlight, which connects Los Angeles and Seattle, Amtrak upgraded sleeping cars and ditched plastic dinnerware in favor of china, table linens and glassware.

Focus groups and customer feedback will help determine ways to improve schedules, equipment, reliability, food service and staffing levels, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. For example, the Cardinal may offer opportunities for daily service.

"That's the biggest thing they could do, in my opinion," said Beau Tuke, a real estate agent in Cincinnati.

Riders complain about delays
Tuke, 30, takes the Cardinal several times a year, even though its on-time performance is just 46 percent, mostly because of heavy freight congestion around Chicago and worn tracks in Indiana that limit speed. Still, Tuke said he finds it a comfortable and relaxing way to travel.

Amtrak prices, like airline tickets, can vary according to how far in advance travelers buy their tickets, and whether they opt for coach or first-class. A one-way coach fare from Cleveland to New York City, purchased three weeks in advance, costs $67 to $89.

Riders often complain about delays on Amtrak's long-distance routes, though overall on-time performance has improved from 30 percent in 2006 to 80 percent in 2009. Backups can be caused by the dispatching practices of freight railroads, which don't always give preference to Amtrak trains, and a lack of track capacity, according to a 2008 U.S. inspector general report.

Amtrak made changes last year to the Lake Shore Limited — a Chicago-based train that crosses northern Ohio — adding a sleeping car service on its Boston leg, overhauling the dining cars and changing the schedule so that the New York leg arrives earlier in Manhattan.

The schedule change added $700,000 in revenue, the agency said.

Adding Wi-Fi
Last month, Amtrak rolled out wireless Internet access on its 110-mph Acela Express trains between Washington and Boston. It is evaluating whether to add Wi-Fi to other routes.

The prospects of better service in Ohio are being closely watched in Toledo, which has the busiest train station the state, drawing 54,488 Amtrak riders in 2009.

Toledo has a stake in the proposed Cleveland-to-Cincinnati route because later stages in the plan call for a Toledo-Columbus branch that would extend to Detroit.

Beth McCray Gill of nearby Ottawa Hills, Ohio, said she's a devoted Amtrak rider, even though her trains to Chicago for weekend getaways board about 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., depending on schedules. Return trips get her back in Toledo around 11:30 p.m. or 2 a.m.

"It's all we've got at the moment, so you have to work with it," the 58-year-old Gill said.