Some commuters rethink lifestyles, jobs, as Amtrak increases its prices

Karen Matthews has been taking the train from Baltimore to her job at a Philadelphia hospital using a monthly pass that costs $528. Next week, Amtrak is raising the price to $882 while insisting she's still getting a good deal.

With less than two weeks' notice, Amtrak is hitting its commuter passengers with increases of hundreds of dollars for a monthly Smart Pass - a move that could force scores of riders in the Baltimore-Washington area to re-evaluate where they live and work and how they travel.

The move, which comes on top of an across-the-board fare increase of 5 percent to 7 percent to cover the increased cost of fuel, is part of an effort by Amtrak to reduce public subsidies of its operations.

The railroad is betting that enough riders will absorb monthly-pass increases of up to 60 percent to offset the loss of those who stop riding the train.

The fare increases do not affect MARC train commuters, but they will have a big impact on such riders as Matthews, Alisha Rovner and Anna Maria Patino. The women commute an hour and 10 minutes a day from Penn Station to Children's Hospital in Philadelphia using a monthly Smart Pass.

For the, three women, the Sept. 20 increase is a household budget catastrophe with an annual impact of more than $4,000 each.

Matthews says she might have to find a new job. Rovner, a Johns Hopkins University student in a residency program, says the increase will eat up her entire educational stipend.

Patino says she has no choice but to ante up because she's in the middle of a two-year psychology fellowship.

"We're committed riders who invest and pay hundreds a month. Why would they increase our rates?" Patino lamented.

Amtrak says it has decided that its current frequent-rider discount - 70 percent off full fare - is too generous. It wants to lower the discount to 50 percent on monthly passes.

Ten-ride passes, which are now discounted by half, will now be sold at 20 percent off full fare.

"When it's put that way, it doesn't sound too bad. But when the ticket agent asks for your money, that's when it's going to hit you," said David R. Johnson, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Andrew C. Selden, vice president for policy of the United Rail Passengers Association, criticized Amtrak's decision to announce the fare increases late Friday, less than two weeks before they will go into effect.

"That's not enough notice to make an adjustment," he said.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black contended that the notice was "entirely sufficient." He conceded that the railroad would likely lose some riders because of the "significant" increases but stressed that the monthly riders are not Amtrak's core customers.

"We are not primarily a commuter railroad. We are an intercity service, but we have accommodated commuters in some markets," he said.

Amtrak said the move affects about 1,500 Smart Pass holders throughout the Northeast corridor and a smaller number of 10-ride customers.

In Baltimore, for instance, the railroad estimates that about 100 riders regularly commute between Penn Station and Wilmington, Del., or Philadelphia.

"In the great scheme of things, it is not a significant part of our ridership," said Bill Schulz, another Amtrak spokesman.

But for Matthews, administrative director of a pediatric injury center at Children's Hospital, the impact is significant. She says she's already seen the monthly fare go from $460 to $528 since she started riding in January 2004.

With gas prices so high, driving would cost too much, she said. And an intercity bus would add hours to her already long commute.

"I would have to start looking for another job within the state of Maryland," she said. "What makes it so bad is that monthly riders get very little respect on Amtrak."

David Chen of Burtonsville, who works for an insurance company in Philadelphia, pays about $550 a month to commute from the Baltimore-Washington International Airport train station. He said the increase could force him to take his two children out of their school and move closer to his job.

It did not appear yesterday that the commuters were occupying seats that could have been filled by full-fare customers. Chen's train, which left Penn Station at 7:12 a.m., was far from full. Many riders sprawled across two seats as they slept. Chen said the car is usually one-third to two-thirds full.

"It doesn't make sense to raise fares on the monthly because they haven't used up capacity at all," he said.

Gary Barnes, a transportation economist at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said Amtrak is taking a risk. "They're gambling that most people will go ahead and pay," he said.

Barnes said the impact might take about six months to become apparent.

"In the short term, that's your job and you're going to have to get to it," he said. "Seeing how it plays out over the long term is different."

Selden said that from a national perspective it makes sense to reduce discounts because Amtrak commuters are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. But he said the railroad will gain little if it keeps the same level of service but with more empty seats and diminished revenue.

"It's foolish beyond description to run that business off," he said. "Nobody has ever accused Amtrak marketing of being competent."

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