Can Amtrak Handle Success?

May 15, 1991

At the ripe old age of 20, America's only inter-city passenger-rail service, Amtrak, has a problem that it never expected when it was set up in 1971: more business than it can handle.

Passengers often stand at peak travel times on the popular New York-Washington and Los Angeles-San Diego lines. Getting a sleeping compartment on Amtrak's western or Florida routes requires reservations months in advance. A record 22.2 million passengers took the train last year.

This places a heavy burden on the government-subsidized railroad. Budget constraints have meant virtually no new rolling stock in seven years. A third of its passenger cars are 35 years old. Breakdowns and delays are on the rise.

But at least one thing seems assured: Amtrak's survival is no longer in doubt. First Ronald Reagan and then George Bush tried to end the railroad's federal subsidy, which probably would have crushed Amtrak. Now, however, Mr. Bush has changed his mind. His transportation secretary, Samuel Skinner, calls passenger rail service "an essential component of an integrated transportation system." The administration is supporting renewal of Amtrak's existing subsidy.

That is an important step for the railroad, which needs federal help to remain competitive with airlines. More important, the extra federal money is crucial if Amtrak is to modernize its aging fleet. The railroad last month placed a $340 million order for 140 new double-decker Superliner trains for vacation routes and next year wants to start upgrading its other passenger cars.

Back in 1972, Amtrak covered only 48 percent of its cost through ticket sales. This year, fare receipts will cover 80 percent. That is a sparkling achievement, one that justifies the White House's new-found confidence in the passenger railroad. By the year 2000, Amtrak has set a goal of self-sufficiency -- at least in its operating budget.

Amtrak's remarkable rise has been fueled by the re-discovery of train travel by millions of Americans. It is fast, comfortable and often less costly than air travel. Downtown-to-downtown routes have won over businessmen, who realize they can get much work done on the trip without the hassle of rushing to and from airports. And vacationers are wild about the railroad's long-distance routes, ski packages, movies and tour options.

Now Amtrak has to learn to handle its growing appeal. The fleet must be modernized. Locomotives and roadbeds kept in shape. Customer service and on-time records enhanced. And Washington has to remain committed to underwriting Amtrak's capital investments in new equipment.

Amtrak officials deserve credit as the railroad celebrates the start of its third decade of service. Survival is no longer the issue. Americans deserves a first-rate passenger rail system. If Amtrak has its way, this could happen by the end of the century.

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