Will Amtrak Survive?

April 15, 1995

Absolutely. Amtrak, the nation's passenger rail system, isn't about to expire. Efforts by congressional conservatives to kill its $1 billion federal subsidy have run into unexpected opposition from unexpected sources. Two rounds of steep cuts, including one last week, improve Amtrak's immediate outlook. Yet the long-term picture isn't rosy.

The basic problem is that members of Congress want to have it both ways: They crave a first-rate rail system but they don't want to pay for it. Ever since Ronald Reagan targeted Amtrak for elimination, the railroad's fiscal situation has gotten progressively worse. A new anti-Amtrak charge by Republican hardliners poses a new threat.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral. Conservative critics suddenly became railroad boosters. The reason? A realization that Amtrak's rail service is highly popular among constituents back home -- both in cities and in rural areas. The notion of losing a treasured rail link is proving unacceptable to many legislators.

Still, Amtrak is staggering. Recently announced cuts will trim 5,500 jobs -- 20 percent of the work force -- and eliminate 24 percent of its 25,000 route miles. Yet federal experts suggest a capital outlay of $4 billion will be needed to bring the entire system up to modern standards. And that doesn't include upgrading the Northeast Corrdior.

The average Amtrak car is 22 years old; some date to 1948. Most of the track needs major overhaul. The Northeast Corridor is stuck with an antiquated 60-year-old electric propulsion system that may doom high-speed trains. The 123-year-old B&P tunnel in Baltimore needs major repairs.

If we truly want a national railroad, it will be expensive. The General Accounting Office reports there is no intercity rail passenger operation in the world that is profitable. Substantial government funds are required in Europe and Japan to keep quality rail service operating. Even Amtrak's most popular routes in the Northeast Corridor and on the West Coast fail to produce enough revenue to cover capital costs. Privatization won't work.

Congress can help with these steps: Eliminate costly layoff restrictions, ease work rules, require states to make bigger contributions in support of local Amtrak routes. But ultimately a decision must be made on the level of federal support for Amtrak. Will it be trimmed to subsistance levels or boosted to improve service and modernize equipment?

Amtrak will likely find a way to survive. The only question is: In what form?

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