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Friday, 19 April, 2002, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
Analysis: Safety issue adds to Amtrak woes
Crashed Amtrak train
The crash came at a bad time for Amtrak
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By Jonathan Marcus
BBC US affairs analyst
line

The latest train derailment has come at a very bad time for Amtrak, America's deficit-burdened passenger rail system.

Amtrak is in deep financial trouble.

Congress is due to decide on its future later this year with a range of options under review, all of which would require significant reforms.

At least one proposal would break up the organisation and franchise out individual routes to private operators.

And now questions about Amtrak's safety will inevitably overshadow the debate about its future.

Hi-tech

It is ironic that the accident involved the Florida Auto Train, a service that carries passengers overnight along with their cars between Florida and Virginia.

Crashed Amtrak train
Investigators will be looking closely at the track

It is said by experts to be the only Amtrak long-distance service that comes even close to breaking even in financial terms.

The equipment used on this train is among the most modern and best maintained in Amtrak's inventory.

Close attention will be given to the state of the track which is owned and maintained by CSX Transportation, one of the big freight carriers that dominate the US railroad scene.

Amtrak's safety record is generally good, though one passenger was killed in a derailment last year and 13 people were killed in a collision between a train and a truck in March, 1999.

Bygone era

Passenger rail travel in the United States tends to conjure up a romantic image of long-distance luxury trains with exotic sounding names and blue-clad pullman porters.

Amtrak train
Rail travel declined after WWII

But that was very much the long-forgotten world of the 1940s.

Passenger rail travel faltered after World War II, eclipsed both by the motor car and increasingly by domestic air travel.

Most of the major railroad companies increasingly abandoned their unprofitable passenger services which were effectively taken over by Amtrak in 1971.

This heavily subsidised operation is the closest thing in the United States to a European-style nationalised industry.

It has staggered from crisis to crisis though many of its long-distance trains still have echoes of the past glory days of American railroading.

The boom in freight railroads has also caused problems for Amtrak; the freight operators are unwilling to have their tracks clogged up by Amtrak's often unreliable services.

Future hopes

But despite Amtrak's problems many experts believe that there is still a future for passenger trains in America.

The old long-distance operations, however, may have to be curtailed or abandoned.

Passenger at airport
Fear of flying after 11 September has helped the rail industry

A recent study from the General Accounting Office noted that in the 46 states served by Amtrak, 34 had fewer than 1,000 passengers a day.

The real future for passenger rail services is in crowded urban corridors like that in the north-east where the new high-speed Acela Express service, linking Washington, New York and Boston, seems to have drawn even with the shuttle airline services in terms of passenger numbers in the wake of the attacks of 11 September.

Indeed, concerns about air safety in the wake of the terrorist attacks and possible delays due to increased security measures at airports could sustain the increased passenger numbers.

Other high-speed rail corridors are also being planned.

But most of Amtrak's unprofitable long-distance services are increasingly under threat.

The Bush Administration appears tempted by some form of privatisation but has so far voiced no clear policy for Amtrak's future which is still very much in the balance.

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The BBC's Matt Podger
"The cause of the crash isn't known"
See also:

19 Apr 02 | Americas
Four killed in Florida train crash
19 Apr 02 | Americas
In pictures: Florida train crash
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