Amtrak has asked the federal government to allow its busy Northeast Corridor, which includes service into and out of Penn Station, to secede financially from the rest of the federally funded rail system -- a move supporters say could benefit Long Island Rail Road commuters.
Under the plan, the Northeast Corridor, which accounts for 80 percent of Amtrak's total annual ridership, would no longer subsidize other money-losing long-distance routes on the nationwide rail system. Instead, the federal government would fully fund the rest of Amtrak's cost, while the Northeast Corridor would keep its profits and reinvest them in infrastructure improvements, including some in the century-old East River rail tunnels primarily used by LIRR trains.
"Infrastructure deterioration and changes in business patterns have reached a point where something has to change," Amtrak president and CEO Joe Boardman said in a statement. "If America wants a modern intercity passenger rail system, the problems of policy and funding must be addressed."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who proposed the plan to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, said Thursday that the train riders who stand to benefit most are LIRR commuters, because of the importance of East River tunnels, which bring LIRR trains into and out of Penn Station. There were nearly 2,000 LIRR train delays last year caused by Amtrak, which owns and maintains the tunnels -- more than twice as many as in 2012.
"It's a novel, creative plan to help Long Island commuters with one of their great problems, which is the infrastructure in the tunnels that go under the East River," said Schumer, who joined nine other U.S. senators in sending a letter to the appropriations committee leadership Thursday urging its consideration of the plan. "All we're saying is, let us keep those profits."
The LIRR declined to comment Thursday on the proposal.
Schumer said he expects the government to decide on the measure by June. The proposal calls for an overall increase in the federal subsidy for Amtrak to $1.62 billion, from $1.4 billion last year.
Ridership on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, which stretches from Washington, D.C., to Boston, has boomed over the last four years. More than 260 million people ride the line each year, and more than three times as many people travel by train than plane between Washington and New York, according to the agency.
Amtrak has said the Northeast Corridor's surging popularity has contributed to a "crisis of success," because of the lack of funding to expand and modernize the system to meet demand.