Amtrak is gearing up for another strong season this summer. But even with a series of new travel programs in hand its managers expect no more than a 1 percent increase in traffic.
Pat Kelly, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said the past decade saw substantial gains that have strained the rail line to its limits."We're using all our equipment," she said. "We haven't gotten additional equipment for several years. There's very little growth that's allowable, at least during the summer."
Kelly stesses that doesn't necessarily mean Amtrak trains are sold out. As soon as you decide on an itinerary, though, she suggests that you make reservations. Amtrak provides full refunds if you have to cancel and notify the railroad at least 48 hours in advance of the departure time.
How far in advance you need to make reservations depends on the route and the day, but if you're locked into specific dates, you should call now, she says.
If you want sleeping accommodations on a train during the summer, you need to place reservations several months ahead. Some passengers, unable to get the dates they wanted in past years, reserve sleeping cars up to 11 months in advance, Kelly says.
If you want coach seats and can be flexible on dates, you should be able to make reservations much closer to your intended departure dates.
One of Amtrak's new programs permits you to travel the country by train this summer even if you only have time to ride one way.
The Air-Rail Travel Plan, new this year, charges a round-trip fare for one-way travel on Amtrak and one way on United Airlines.
Like Amtrak's other discount plans, this one permits three stopovers along your train route.
Unlike the others, it breaks the United States into four regions to determine the cost.
It works like this:
Suppose you live in Norfolk, Va., in the Eastern zone. During the peak period - May 24 to Sept. 16 - you pay $439 to either fly to a city in the Mountain States zone and ride back, or the reverse. Then, during your train ride, you could stop in Denver, in Chicago and in Cincinnati. That's the Mountain-East Coast package, one of six that are available.
- The Transcontinental package: travel between the East and West coasts that costs $499 over the summer, $419 at other times.
- The Midwest-West package, which costs $399 over the summer, $369 at off-peak times for coach fare.
- The Midwest-Florida package, which costs $349 over the summer, $299 at other times.
- A regional tour, which costs $489 over the summer and $419 at other times. You fly to one of five metropolitan areas - Minneapolis/St. Paul, Omaha, Kansas City, Dallas/Fort Worth, or Houston - and then travel the West by rail. The train takes you to one of the five cities.
- A second regional tour, which costs less - $389 over the summer, $359 at off-peak times. It allows you to fly to Chicago or New Orleans, then travel the East by rail. The train will then take you to either Chicago or New Orleans to fly home.
On these and other offers, Amtrak charges half the available adult fare for children. The fares, previously reserved for ages 2 to 11, now apply as well to children 12 to 15 traveling with an adult.
Amtrak also markets other complete travel packages, called Great American Vacations. They include accommodations at hotels or national parks, and some also feature guided tours. Several packages combine rail travel with cruise ship accommodations.
And Amtrak, of course, still offers standard rail fares.
For travel through May 23, many fares reduced last September remain in effect, including All Aboard America fares.
The program sets up fares based on regions. You may travel up to 45 days, and may visit up to three places.
If you stay within one region, coach travel will cost $179 through May 23. If you cross into a second region, you'll pay $229. Traveling through all three regions costs $259.
Starting May 24, fares will increase to $189, $269 and $339, respectively - the same charged last year during the peak season.
For this program, the Eastern region stretches to Chicago or New Orleans; the Western region extends to Wolf Point, Mont., Denver, Albuquerque and El Paso. The Central region includes all these cities, and everywhere in between.
On Amtrak's Auto Train, which travels between Washington and Orlando, Fla., the best deal is the round-trip excursion fare. Tickets cost $169 for adults, $85 for children ages 2-15, and $238 for a vehicle.
Through June 17, passengers traveling north pay peak fare. For one-way tickets, that amounts to $119 for adults, $85 for children, and $298 for an auto.
Southbound passengers pay signficantly less - $69 for adults, $34.50 for children, and $114 for autos.
These fares, of course, are subject to availability. The regular one-way fares - $140 for adults, $70 for children and $200 for a car - are guaranteed.
The train operates daily between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla. The ticket price includes a buffet dinner, a movie and a continental breakfast.
On many of these offers, you qualify for discounts if you are over 65, on active duty in the military or have disabilities. Groups of 15 or more also may qualify.
To obtain a copy of "Amtrak's merica," contact an Amtrak station or travel agent or write Amtrak's Distribution Center, P.O. Box 7717, Itasca, IL 60143. To make reservations, call your travel agent or 1-800-USA-RAIL.