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Amtrak important to region

The saying “you have to spend money to make money” is not new, but it deserves considerable thought by officials of Amtrak going forward, especially regarding places such as Altoona and Johnstown — and other communities like them in Pennsylvania, west and east.

A report in the Jan. 2 Wall Street Journal provides good indication why.

Under the headline “Amtrak faces scrutiny despite gains,” the Journal article begins, “For a company coming off its best year ever, Amtrak faces a strange challenge in 2020: convincing its owner, the federal government, that the (national passenger) railroad is running in the right direction.”

For places like Altoona and Johnstown, the realistic conclusion is that its direction is problematic. The reason is that Amtrak is not doing as much as it could be doing for central and western Pennsylvania, and it might be planning to do less in the years ahead.

With two federal House panels scheduled to begin work on a reauthorization bill to replace the FAST Act — the five-year surface transportation funding bill signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 4, 2015 — the time is right for this region to emphasize the message that Amtrak service ought to be improved here, not weakened.

However, the railroad might have to spend some money to make more money over the long run.

The direction of thought by Amtrak’s current leadership apparently is not focusing that way, based on the information contained in the Jan. 2 Journal article.

According to that article, Amtrak leadership is committed to bolstering service along it busiest and most profitable East Coast corridor, to the possible detriment of other areas it serves, maybe including this one.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, are skeptical of Amtrak thinking and, although some of DeFazio’s viewpoints aren’t necessarily correct, his basic premise that “Amtrak is a service, and it can be a better service” definitely is sound.

That is not to imply that Amtrak leaders’ visions regarding improvements to the northeast corridor lack merit. For example, it is not irresponsible for them to favor certain large capital projects, such as new tunnels.

But if Amtrak tried harder to build ridership through central Pennsylvania and points west with an extra train or two and more convenient schedules — and, possibly with some attractive incentives initially, such as discounted ticket prices to acquaint people with the benefits of riding a train — Amtrak might end up better off, not worse.

Anyone worried about Amtrak losing money needs only to absorb the fact that the passenger service reported an adjusted operating loss of “just” $29.8 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, its best financial performance in its nearly 50-year history.

Improving service to places like Altoona, Johnstown and Pittsburgh wouldn’t put Amtrak in a proverbial poorhouse, considering that its annual federal subsidy last year totaled $2.2 billion.

DeFazio believes Amtrak “should think about efficiency but not profit.”

Current Amtrak leaders reject that view, but it nonetheless is food for ongoing discussion and debate.

To attract more riders in places like Altoona and Johnstown, schedules must be convenient, and there must be more than one train east and west.

Currently here, Amtrak is failing on both fronts.

Hopefully, the successor to FAST — the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act — will be instrumental in correctly addressing such failures.

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