Q&A: Amtrak CEO on American Ridership

America's passenger rail system has never measured up to others around the world. In the 1950s, when much of Europe and Asia were formulating plans for intricate rail networks, America was investing in what would become its equally intricate highway system. But as fuel prices rise, train travel--by far the most fuel-efficient mode--is emerging as a more attractive way of getting around. Amtrak, the nation's principal rail carrier, has seen record growth and the U.S. Congress is considering a measure to broadly expand the publicly funded service. Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant says he envisions America's rails will one day rival the speedy efficiency of international systems, like in France and Germany, but that it will happen incrementally. Kummant spoke with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone about what's in store aboard America's trains. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: U.S. rail ridership is way up and high gas prices are discouraging more people from driving. Is this rail's defining moment?
Alex Kummant: We jokingly say that it's the first time in our history when the emergent transportation mode actually exists already. We're a nation of travelers--from the incredible urban centers of the East Coast to the remarkable ports of the Hudson, the Mississippi and further west. All of a sudden, rail is the emergent transportation mode and it's there already. And lucky for us, we already know how to do it.

One house of the U.S. Congress just passed a $15 billion, 10-year authorization for capital investment. What does that mean for the system? 
It's enormously positive. It was gratifying to see the bipartisan support. It's so critical is for us as a country to start spending capital for infrastructure. We've only gotten somewhere around $500 million each year for capital, which isn't much. This new package will increase our capital budget dramatically.

Passenger rail systems across parts of Europe and Asia are the most intricate and reliable in the world. Why not here?
If you look at federal money spent on infrastructure, things are very different here versus there. In the end, it's an issue of political lists and how high oil prices have to get to really motivate a return to the role of federal government, which is to build out vital infrastructure. We all love high-speed rail, and of course we want it here, but people forget that in Europe, there's a base system that runs at high speeds, like you can see in Germany. It's that base speed that we need to start building.

Is mirroring systems abroad really a possibility in the United States?
I think it'll happen incrementally. It's the right thing to do to have states help invest in multimodal transportation. Some federal and state money should go to highways, but some should go to rail. I think all of us here need to take a more holistic look at transportation.

Transportation spending is often tied closely to the economy. Why invest in rail in particular, as opposed to other modal infrastructure?
If you want to really talk about a stimulus package for the economy, investing in rail is wonderful. There are local jobs and local materials. It's good for steel plants, we can train people. There's a heck of a lot of technology in the rail world, more so than a lot of people realize. From a stimulus point of view, from a jobs point of view, it's fabulous. With high energy prices, we're also going to see pretty dramatic realignments in real-estate value and even faster resurgence of city centers, which helps the housing market, too.

Which U.S. routes could see the most immediate improvement.
If you look at Chicago to Detroit ... it's a complex railroad, but for less than a billion dollars, you could make that a high-speed passenger corridor. Some of the lines around Chicago are practically ready to go to support 110-miles-per-our travel. We'd like to look south of Washington, heading toward Richmond. In Florida, many of the routes are the right distance for a lot of improvement.

High costs have been a strong deterrent to the service. Will increased ridership translate to changes in ticket prices?
Well, this year, we're going to grow more than 10 percent in ridership. We're near sell-out conditions on some of the trains, like on the Northeast Corridor [between Boston and Washington]. Changes in ticket prices is really a public-policy question that the taxpayers and the Congress need to decide. But we're working hard on increasing efficiency.

Where oil is now, costs are rising. Where's the future of American passenger rail travel?
There is a growing consensus that we have to increase our overall ability and capacity for passenger rail. There's plenty of bipartisan support for that in the government. I think the system will grow substantially. We're already growing incrementally.

Speed is certainly factor in how people choose to get around. The top American trains go 150mph. European trains top 200.
Those trains run on dedicated right-of-ways reserved just for them. We'd love to be the TGV if we had a spare hundred billion dollars to create separate right-of-ways and spend the next 20 years in court on eminent-domain proceedings to build out in some of the most densely populated areas. I believe that there will eventually be high speed in the country like that, but it'll probably start farther west where they'll be less trouble putting in dedicated routes.