Collison course for Amtrak

March 29, 1994

Amtrak, America's national passenger railroad, is on a collision course.

It can't fulfill its mission with the federal aid it gets ($788 million), and it can't ask passengers to pay much more in fares without losing their business to buses, cars and planes. Unless something is done to reverse this trend, Amtrak could be headed for a serious crash.

The problem is simple. Congress has been unwilling to invest enough money in Amtrak to cover operating costs, much less pay for new equipment. So money earmarked for equipment replacement, maintenance and passenger stations is being diverted to keep the railroad up and running. That's one reason Baltimore's Penn Station revitalization took so long to get off the ground. Now Amtrak's aging equipment is deteriorating, trains are arriving later and later and employees are overworked.

As Amtrak's new president, Thomas M. Downs, put it, "We are now, as America's railroad, promising a service we can't deliver." He told a congressional committee that he feared this situation could lead to a rapid decline of passenger service.

Both Mr. Downs and the General Accounting Office agree that what is needed is a big boost in federal spending on Amtrak. That's a far better alternative than an exorbitantly expensive bailout later. Congress' commitment to building a first-rate passenger rail system is clearly lacking. Most pressing is more capital funds for new cars and locomotives and more cash to rehire maintenance workers and service personnel. The Clinton administration has made a credible initial showing of support in its budget request, but the question now is whether Congress concurs.

One sensible step would be to let Amtrak trim the size of its 25,000-mile system, despite the howls of protest from some powerful congressmen whose districts would lose service. Given the unwillingness of Congress to fully fund Amtrak's subsidy needs, something's got to be cut. Under-performing routes seem the logical choice.

Since its formation in 1971, Amtrak has played an important role in America's transportation network. Especially along the West Coast and the Northeast Corridor, the passenger railroad has attracted a loyal following and has been able to increase the amount of expenses paid out of ticket sales. Elsewhere, results have been less favorable. It is up to Congress either to provide enough money so Amtrak can do its job in a first-rate manner, or agree to a plan for shrinking the size of the rail system to match more modest appropriations.

Doing nothing could be disastrous. Amtrak's danger whistle is blowing. Will Congress heed the warning?

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