Amtrak cuts likely to bypass New Haven

While Amtrak is facing increasingly long odds in its struggle to survive, the profitability of the Northeast Corridor will likely guarantee the continuance of service through New Haven.

A 1997 federal law giving Amtrak five years to become self-sufficient may prove to be the ultimate cause of the troubled national railroad’s demise.

Amtrak tried to reach its goal of self-sufficiency by embarking on a series of ambitious, seemingly profitable capital projects, including high-speed Acela service on the Northeast Corridor. Left with limited finances to devote to maintenance, the company was forced to borrow funds to replace rail cars and locomotives, accruing significant debt.

Earlier this month, Amtrak President George Warrington threatened to cut off some unprofitable long-distance routes in October if Congress does not approve more funding for next year. But as Congress debates the future of Amtrak — and some lawmakers call for the breakup of Amtrak and the privatization of rail routes — continued service from Boston to Washington, D.C., is one of the few certainties.

“There is no reduction in train service from New Haven’s Union Station,” said Raymond F. Cox, an assistant administrator for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. “In fact, Amtrak will continue to add Amtrak Acela trains to the current timetable.”

Since the Northeast Corridor is the only profit-generating arm of Amtrak’s rail lines, Harris said, service would probably not be cut from it. But he said that some capital projects, such as the construction of new rail sidings and high-speed interlockings, which allow trains to switch tracks, could be discontinued along the Northeast Corridor.

“The funding stream for these could be threatened by the announced cutback in Amtrak funding of noncritical, nonsafety-related capital programs,” he said.

Anthony Rescigno, the president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, said New Haven would be negatively affected if Amtrak did decide to cut rail service out of Union Station.

“Any cutback in service would have a negative impact on the business community,” he said.

Harris, however, pointed out that because the Northeast Corridor is profitable, another firm would likely replace Amtrak if it fails.

“There is a lot of support for rail service along the Northeast Corridor, so even if Amtrak fails as an operating unit, it is likely that some entity may replace it,” he said. “Then the key question will be what will the role of the new operating unit be and who will take over the capital maintenance responsibilities.”

Harris also said he did not think the Bush administration and Congress would allow Amtrak to fold this year because it is an election year.

“Generally, feeling is that some sort of bailout for the current fiscal year and the first part of next year will be engineered to permit Congress to deal with bigger issues like national security and Enron and the fall elections,” he said.

Rescigno said New Haven would try to ensure that Amtrak’s financial problems would not hurt the city’s economy.

“Our goal is always to increase service,” he said. “We would fight anything in the reverse direction.”

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