WASHINGTON -- Being the president of Amtrak is not a position most mortals would covet.
The railroad has aging equipment, an overhang of debt and up-to-the-precipice struggles for congressional funding. Its name gets hit by accidents on lines of private railroads from which it leases track space. A constant chorus of critics suggests its entire operation be liquidated.
But Tom Downs, a 54-year-old career manager with an irrepressible sense of humor, loves leading Amtrak. And right now he's ebullient over a new $2.3 billion lifeline from Congress.
The money is to be used for capital improvements -- for buying 18 high-speed train sets for the Northeast Corridor, finishing corridor electrification and modernization, and replacing Amtrak's aging nationwide inventory of locomotives and passenger cars.
It's less than Amtrak had hoped for -- originally some $4 billion. And Congress is still not giving Amtrak the money it needs for its glide path toward total operating self-sufficiency in 2002.
Experts say Amtrak has new running room, but no permanent protection from bankruptcy. For the first time ever, though, it's free to manage smartly, since Congress removed antiquated labor rules and bans on contracting out services.
As for Tom Downs, he exudes optimism. With the new cash, he says, Amtrak will make a big, market-transforming splash in the Washington-Boston corridor: ''We'll have brand new 150-mile-an-hour trains that take you from downtown to downtown in style, quiet, comfort, on regular schedule. Seat-back entertainment. Laptop work stations at every seat. Like Europe's TVG and ICE luxury rapid rail, this will become a preferred mode of travel. We'll be all-weather and kill the air shuttle, with its crowded old 737s.''
Will it be enough, ask skeptics, to shrink New York-Washington Metroliner time to 2.5 hours, or the New York-Boston rail time to 3 hours? Because of railbed turns, these trains will max out at 50 miles less per hour than Europe's fastest trains.
Not critical, replies Mr. Downs. Amtrak will be selling the luxury that business travelers want, combined with downtown-to-downtown service.
Indeed, Mr. Downs predicts, the improved Northeast Corridor will spark ''a huge surge of business-travel-related investments -- conference centers, travel hotels, restaurants -- in the city cores.'' The interstate highway system, he says, ended up hollowing out cities. Rapid rail, in stark contrast, ''will be the first urban recentralizer of our time.''
High-speed rail, claims Mr. Downs, will also lead to a viable Northeast Corridor ''hub and spoke'' strategy -- passengers connecting, at such center city stations as Washington's Union Station, Philadelphia's 30th Sreet and New York's Penn Station -- with those regions' growing commuter rail lines.
Plus airports: With a station soon to open at Newark airport, both Amtrak and Jersey Transit passengers will be 2.5 monorail minutes from the main international terminal. Newark, America's first international airport with rapid rail service, could easily outpace John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia, already marooned behind miles of road congestion.
But, I asked Mr. Downs, what of the physical horror along much of the Northeast Corridor -- trash, abandoned old rail cars, decayed switches, broken up old ties? Who -- including foreigners on their first impressionable trip to America -- can stomach this mess?
Mr. Downs' reply: Amtrak's begun a three-year, $3 million-a-year program to haul away the junk. It's also erecting fences to stop local dumping on its tracks. The job should be complete before high-speed rail service kicks off in 2000.
But what of the ghostly burned out buildings, junkyards, trash pits, the flotsam and jetsam of the industrial age right outside Amtrak's right-of-way fence? Mr. Downs is telling mayors up and down the corridor: It's high time to clean up, recycle that land. Your downtowns are about to reap benefit from Amtrak's $3 billion in rapid-rail investment. Don't leave your rail gateways looking like ghastly waste dumps.
Mr. Downs predicts this first U.S. venture in high-speed service will be a revelation to Americans and ''spur a generation of high-speed rail'' among America's densely populated areas. Likely first breakthroughs, he suggests: Los Angeles to San Diego and the Midwest (to and through Chicago to Milwaukee, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Detroit).
But state governments (largely nonplayers in the Northeast Corridor) will have to put up a lot of the money. The arguments to convince them? High-speed rails take cars off the congestion-plagued highways. They're ideal for up-to-300-mile-away markets, obviating the need for new mega-airports. And they spell business prestige: the kind of rapid, high-class connections among neighboring metropolises that discerning people around the globe are demanding.
Amtrak won't own the new rapid lines (as it does in the Northeast Corridor), but it's likely to bid to run them. That should be profitable. Mr. Downs sees dollar signs, too, in competing for chunks of the country's overnight express package service.
Indeed, you can't walk out of Tom Downs' office believing he won't use the added money and authority Congress has granted to build a much more entrepreneurial, aggressive Amtrak.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.
Pub Date: 12/02/97