And it's getting serious about funding: A call for financing proposals for high-speed rail issued last month embraces private investment, real estate fees, and other approaches besides the traditional "please, Uncle Sam, may I have some more?"
The railroad's debt has dropped from $4 billion in 2005 to less than $2 billion. Its credit rating has improved three times in two years. Service between Washington and Boston turns an operating profit. Nationwide, Amtrak recovers about 85 percent of operating costs.
Amtrak had more riders in March than in any of its previous 39 Marches, and the railroad is on track to break its annual record of 28.7 million passengers set last year.
"Our ridership has grown more than 36 percent since 2000, and, with the price of fuel going up, I think we're going to see a direct correlation with ridership," Amtrak president Joseph Boardman said Wednesday. "But we're running out of capacity."
To increase capacity and reliability, Amtrak last year ordered 130 new cars and 70 electric locomotives for $764 million. The first new car is to roll off the Elmira, N.Y., assembly line in 2012; the first new Siemens locomotive is due in from the Sacramento plant in 2013.
The railroad also wants to order 40 new Acela Express cars next year to ease crowding on its 20 Acela trains, and it is devising ways to increase frequency of the popular and lucrative Acela runs.
The Obama administration's ambitious high-speed rail plans have been nixed by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Florida. But Amtrak has moved aggressively to seek money those states forfeited to build a $117 billion, 220-m.p.h. Northeast Corridor service that could whisk riders from Philadelphia to New York in 38 minutes, and from Boston to Washington in 3 hours and 23 minutes.
And after Gov. Christie canceled plans for a rail tunnel from New Jersey to New York City, Amtrak seized the initiative in February with its own $13.5 billion "Gateway" proposal for new Hudson River tunnels and related improvements to eliminate the bottleneck into New York.
"We're going to step forward and get things done," Boardman said. "When I came in here, I found men and women - and then a president - who want to make progress."
"If New Jersey is going to step back, we're going to step forward."
Created from remnants of the Penn Central and other private carriers, Amtrak was established May 1, 1971. Its first train was the Clocker 173 out of New York's Penn Station at 12:05 a.m., bound for 30th Street Station.
"The traveling public is entitled to clean passenger cars, to on-time schedules, to appetizing meals and prompt service, and to long-neglected practices of service and civility," Transportation Secretary John Volpe told reporters at the time. He rode a shiny new Metroliner that featured, as the New York Times reported, "stewardesses in red blazers and blue slacks, passenger representatives, carpeting, and comfortable seats."
Amtrak had grand visions. "Eventually, there may be live entertainment, movies, beauty parlors, and barbershops, lounges, and offices for businessmen aboard the train," the Times reported.
Instead, deficits mounted, maintenance was deferred, routes were trimmed, and political leaders clamored for Amtrak to break even or die. Ridership, which had risen steadily in the first decade, stagnated.
As Europe and Asia built networks of 200-m.p.h. trains, the United States focused instead on highways and airways, letting its national railroad languish. Even the "high-speed" Acela, begun in 2000, averages only 81 m.p.h. between New York and Washington and 65 m.p.h. between New York and Boston (it tops out at 150 for a stretch between New York and Boston).
But in recent years, Amtrak has enjoyed unprecedented rider support, and newfound political backing.
Boardman, who was President George W. Bush's railroad administrator, was named Amtrak president by the agency's board in 2008. With outspoken support from President Obama and Vice President Biden (a well-known Amtrak commuter), Boardman has pushed for growth and modernization of Amtrak.
Last year, he created a new high-speed rail department in Philadelphia and brought on local engineer and transportation executive Albrecht Engel to run it. Last May the agency issued a relatively modest master plan for upgrading the Northeast Corridor, and, in September, a much more ambitious vision for a true high-speed railroad between Washington and Boston.
That vision called for a high-speed corridor that would parallel the existing one for much of its route but that would go inland through Connecticut to Boston. And in Philadelphia and New York, it would go underground. The proposed Philadelphia tunnel would connect the airport and the Market East Station.
Last month, Amtrak took steps to support its dreams with dollars. It requested proposals for financing the new high-speed corridor. The financing plan, Amtrak told prospective bidders, should be grounded in real-world economics.
"This work is not intended to produce a study, but a fully implementable, robust financial plan," the request said. It needs to "identify all potential sources of revenue that the system could attract, including passenger fares, real estate fees, availability payments, and local tax streams . . . [and] identify the operating or capital components that are most likely to attract private investment."
Boardman says finding new revenue sources is a must.
"There's a real lack of balance in making transportation investment in this country," he said. "But we can't just reach out with our palm every time our elected leaders go by."
Even if they're taking the train.
Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or email@example.com.