Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Amtrak Aims to Improve Routes, Boost Ridership; the Rail Service Seeks Additional Funding to Offer More, Faster Options

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Amtrak Aims to Improve Routes, Boost Ridership; the Rail Service Seeks Additional Funding to Offer More, Faster Options

Article excerpt

Byline: LARRY HANNAN

For the past three months, Murray Johnston has regularly driven from Jacksonville to Columbia, S.C.

During the four- to five-hour drive, Johnston has occasionally wondered why there isn't a train that can take him to Columbia at a decent time. Amtrak has a train that goes from Jacksonville to Columbia, but it would require overnight travel.

That's not feasible, so Johnston drives to Columbia to see his wife, who's working on a project, and spends about $80 in gas during the ride.

"I don't understand why people can travel all over Europe and Japan by train, but you can't travel through the United States the same way," Johnston said.

That complaint is being heard by more people now that gas costs around $4 a gallon. People who never thought of taking the train are suddenly exploring it as an option.

Amtrak has been around since 1971 and is run by the federal government. The company was designed to be a nationwide rail service that would allow people to travel to all the major cities in America.

The rail company has operated at a deficit every year since it was created and has never run efficiently enough to be a good transportation option for many cross-country travelers.

Among the complaints from Jacksonville residents is that Amtrak doesn't go to enough locations and is always late on its current routes.

Matt Ringler of Jacksonville has considered taking Amtrak many times.

But the trip lengths and schedules have always led him to drive instead.

There needs to be an express route to all the major cities in Florida, such as a train that could go from Jacksonville to Miami in less than six hours, he said.

The quickest route from Jacksonville to Miami now takes more than eight hours.

There also needs to be commuter rail systems that would allow people to travel quickly from Jacksonville to areas such as Orange Park and St. Augustine, Ringler said.

Such comments aren't disputed by Amtrak officials, who said they want to improve service.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said the rail company wants to expand in Florida and hopes to enter into more partnerships with the Florida Department of Transportation.

Nationwide, Amtrak had its best month ever in May in terms of passengers and ticket revenue.

But the company said it needs more funding beyond the $1.2 billion it now gets if it is to expand existing services.

That funding may be coming soon. Congress has approved funding increases for the agency. The House passed a bill this year that would give Amtrak $15 billion from 2009 to 2013. Some of that money also would go toward intercity passenger rail and high-speed rail. The Senate has passed a bill that would give Amtrak about $11.4 billion over six years.

Officials expect to meet this summer to find a way to merge the two bills, said Bryan Gulley, spokesman for U. …

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