HARTFORD, Connecticut -- In signing the Department of Transportation spending bill the other day, President Clinton shoveled some coal into Amtrak's firebox as it races toward a millennium that spells either glory or doom -- a fate to be determined in part by whether America's national rail system can sell 150-mile-an-hour luxury train travel to Americans.
While congressional Republicans want the sun to set on Amtrak's operating subsidies by 2000, they nevertheless appropriated enough money to keep its high-speed rail project alive. The quasi-public company is gambling that if European-style trains between Boston and Washington succeed, Amtrak may gain a new lease on life.
GOP appropriators believe passenger rail doesn't deserve to exist unless it can operate in the black, an idea that flies in the face of both history and economics and provides a classic example of why a one-size-fits-all approach to big government doesn't add up.
In fact, no national passenger rail system operates at a profit. Then why have one? Because railroads between major cities are a means to several ends: They lessen airway congestion, reduce the need for costly downtown commuter parking, use less energy than cars, and spur tax-generating development along their routes.
France built the 165-mile-an-hour Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) from Paris to Lyon 15 years ago, in part, to avoid constructing a third Paris airport. And in just two years, it siphoned off 40 percent of air travelers to the train's 400-mile ground route.
Amtrak expects similar results from its New York-to-Boston route, which will start operating in 1999. The new trains, to be built in America and sold or leased to Amtrak, will cut travel time to less than three hours.
The new trains will offer culture-shock for travelers used to Amtrak's pre-packaged tuna sandwiches and its sometimes malodorous restrooms. A traveler will be able to order a salmon filet and a bottle of sauvignon blanc from an attendant waiting by his seat, then settle back to watch a movie on the personalized screen in the seatback before faxing an itinerary to his office.
Amtrak tested European trains on American lines the past two years -- Sweden's X-2000 tilt-train and Germany's Inter-City Express between New Haven and Washington and Spain's Talgo from Portland to Seattle. So successful was the Talgo trial that the state of Washington anted up money to keep the popular train there permanently. It now runs at better than 90 percent capacity. Given the Washington fiscal climate, such Amtrak-state partnerships may become more common.
Yet while the Northeast Corridor will host the country's first high-speed trains, their real financial potential lies in connecting them with lines heading west and south, to form a network.
The French TGV discovered that after seven years of operation, more than two-thirds of its riders between Paris and Lyon connected with other trains at those points on the way to their ultimate destinations. Operating as part of a network allowed the TGV by the 1990s to post a 15 percent profit that helped subsidize less profitable routes.
High-speed trains across the American prairies are a pipe dream at best, but interconnections among populous areas are feasible. If the Northeast Corridor experiment succeeds, Amtrak has its sights on Florida, California, Texas and the Chicago area for extensions of the concept.
Clearly such a plan is beyond the ability of private capital to undertake. But the French experience demonstrates that the synergies that networks produce allow such a public undertaking to pay for itself. Some government infusion up front may mean fewer public subsidies later.
Stephen B. Goddard is the author of ''Getting There: the Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century.''