Air interruptions show trains are still needed

Amtrak: After years of waffling, Congress should recognize importance of passenger trains.

September 26, 2001

HORDES OF Americans, jittery about flying because of terrorism fears, have rediscovered passenger trains. Some are overjoyed by their experience, but many others are appalled.

Except for the heavily traveled corridor between Washington and Boston, most of the nation's passenger train routes are in a shambles after decades of underfunding and neglect.

Congress bears much of the blame.

Since the 1971 creation of Amtrak, highways and aviation have received $750 billion in federal support. The quasi-governmental passenger service operator has been forced to make do with $11 billion.

This same funding pattern is now being repeated.

Just last week, Congress quickly -- and properly -- enacted a $15 billion rescue package to keep the nation's troubled airlines flying. By contrast, a $3 billion package for Amtrak is in limbo.

The truth is Amtrak desperately requires such an emergency infusion.

But that's only the beginning. In order to grow, Amtrak needs to have its future secured. As long as it has to resort to such desperate stopgap measures as mortgaging key stations, the corporation will just hobble from one financial crisis to the next.

For years, Congress has tried to have it both ways. It has insisted on Amtrak maintaining a nationwide passenger-rail operation -- with several unprofitable routes -- but doesn't want to pay for it.

As a result, Amtrak has developed a split personality. Its Northeast operation, with 126 trains a day, is profitable, reasonably fast and reliable. The rest of the network, though, stumbles along in an erratic way that is enough to give all train travel a bad name.

Since many key cities outside the Eastern seaboard and West Coast are served by long-distance trains that travel thousands of miles, long delays are common -- particularly toward the end of the routes. Such absence of predictability or punctuality makes them poor alternatives to planes or automobiles.

For years, Washington politicians have complained about Amtrak's relatively small but seemingly endless subsidies. In 1997, they decreed that the passenger service operator must become self-sufficient by December 2002.

Such a goal -- by that or any other deadline -- is a pipe dream. Even in European countries, famed for their fast trains and strong rider patronage, passenger service often operates at a loss. Governments grumble but keep bankrolling the routes because trains are deemed to be important and, in the end, less expensive than building and maintaining new highway infrastructure.

This may not yet have dawned on politicians on Capitol Hill. But state governments are increasingly recognizing trains as an essential part of a balanced transportation system. They are bankrolling their own commuter rail systems.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, much of Washington's traffic has been a daily nightmare. Not surprisingly, particularly Virginia's fledgling commuter rail system has emerged as an important commuting alternative. MARC, the much bigger and older system that links Maryland with the nation's capital, also has seen steady increases in its ridership.

These commuter lines are no substitute for Amtrak's inter-city trains. Yet they are often hampered by the same infrastructure impediments, including antiquated tunnels in Baltimore and New York that slow trains to a snail's pace. Such roadblocks detract from the full potential of the new Acela trains and other faster rolling stock.

Amtrak has demonstrated its importance in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 outrages. Anxieties about flying and tough, time-consuming security measures have highlighted trains as a short-haul transportation alternative.

Congress must recognize this by giving Amtrak emergency help and securing its long-term viability.

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