BOSTON (Reuters) - As oil prices spike, many Americans are rediscovering the railroad.
Amtrak, America's struggling passenger railroad, saw record numbers in May when ridership rose 12.3 percent from a year earlier, and ticket sales climbed 15.6 percent, according to company data.
Amtrak President Alex Kummant said the numbers point to a sixth straight year of record passengers. He estimated a more than 11 percent rise this year on its 21,000 miles of track, building on last year's 26 million passengers.
He attributes about half that growth to higher gas prices. "It depends on the service but certainly our ridership growth is linked to the fuel prices," he said in an interview. "We are up against capacity limits."
The Bush administration has sought to scrap direct federal funding for Amtrak, a for-profit federal corporation that has bled red ink since its 1971 creation. Its backers contend that passenger rail services in other countries also lose money.
The White House threatened on Monday to veto legislation to fund Amtrak for the next five years, saying the U.S. House of Representatives failed to include language that would make the railroad more accountable.
The House legislation would authorize Amtrak funding of $14 billion and set up a program of federal matching grants to states for projects to improve passenger service, an arrangement Kummant says is crucial for any expansion.
"That would have a huge impact," Kummant said. "We are in a different world than even just three or four years ago with gas prices at these levels, with the congestion we face on the highways and with the difficulty in air travel."
Rail advocates say the rise in passenger numbers underlines the need for greater federal and state funding in railways to bring the United States in line with Europe and Japan and give Amtrak the muscle to compete with commercial airlines.
They point to long-distance routes where ridership jumped 15 percent in May as evidence that railways can compete with airlines, as the rising cost of jet fuel pushes up air fares.
While Britain, France and Germany all have passenger rail systems that account for about 6-8 percent of total annual passenger travel miles, Amtrak carries less than 1 percent. Japan, which operates the world's busiest high-speed rail network with its Shinkansen trains, carries about 18 percent.
"It's a matter of getting a huge ship like the American transportation industry to change direction," said Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which lobbies for more subsidies for Amtrak.
Many travelers say they would like to see more services, citing frustration over U.S. gasoline pump prices averaging above $4 a gallon and rising air ticket prices.
"Even for business travelers there's a lot of corporate pressure to cut down on travel costs," said Paul Clapis, 53, after stepping off Amtrak's only high-speed service, the Acela Express, following a trip from New York to Boston.
Clapis, a director of a financial company, said he usually made the trip by air until two months ago when he switched to the train to save money.
Sharon Danaher-Henry, a senior citizen, decided not to fly to Maine from Connecticut. It's too expensive, she said, to fly with the top U.S. carriers, which tried to raise most domestic fares by $20 round-trip over the weekend.
"The cost of flying is outrageous," she said, while waiting in Hartford, Connecticut, for an Amtrak train to take her about 200 miles to Portland, Maine.
The ticket to Portland costs about $100, less than a third of one of the cheapest available airline tickets that would require two stopovers. Both trips require more than seven hours when including time needed for switching between planes.
"The train is inexpensive and it takes the same travel time as flying but at least with the train, you get to see scenic things," she said.
The question of whether to expand the nation's only long-haul passenger railroad could spill into presidential politics.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has said on his Web site he would fight for Amtrak funding while seeking reforms. His Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, has in the past sought to block federal subsidies for Amtrak.
Critics say Amtrak remains woefully slow and inefficient.
On tracks shared with commuter trains on the Washington-New York-Boston corridor, Amtrak's premier service, the Acela, averages 82 miles per hour (132 km per hour) although it can hit 150 mph (241 kph) in parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut.
In contrast, Japan, France and Germany have developed nationwide rail systems capable of speeds of 150 mph (241 kph) to 185 mph (297 kph) on dedicated tracks with sophisticated signaling systems designed for high-speed trains.
Additional reporting by Lucy Nalpathanchil in Hartford, editing by Alan Elsner