American rail

July 23, 2002

AMTRAK WILL keep going through the end of September, thanks to a deal reached last week by congressional negotiators over the objection of the White House, and that's good because it protects the nation's passenger trains -- for at least the next 70 days, anyway -- from some of the more nonsensical ideas that the administration would like to pursue.

Amtrak has been under the gun several times this year already, and the White House wanted to impose its own reforms on the system while it was up against severe financial deadlines. No good was going to come from such an attack. Congress objected, and now a supplemental appropriations bill would provide the rail company with $205 million -- no strings attached -- to keep the trains rolling.

That money buys time. What Amtrak and its supporters must now do is use that time to fashion a plan for a reasonable system.

Norman Mineta, the secretary of transportation, is pushing two ideas in particular that are non-solutions for what ails Amtrak. One is simply beside the point; the other defies common sense.

Beside the point: He wants the states to take on more of the burden. And it's true: If more states emulated California, which has invested heavily in rail service, America would have trains all over the place. But the states are already free to do this, and most haven't, because the money isn't there.

Defying common sense: Mr. Mineta has proposed that the tracks in the Northeast corridor be sold off to another company. Huh? The Northeast corridor is the one place where Amtrak is in control of its own destiny, because it owns the right-of-way, the tracks, the signals, the cars, the engines, the stations. In fact, one of Amtrak's severest problems is that in most of the country it must run trains on railbeds owned by private freight railroads. It's an impediment to good service, not an advantage. If dividing the ownership of rails and trains is such a good idea, why don't the freight lines do it?

Indeed, Mr. Mineta does have one semi-interesting idea, which is to allow other companies to try to offer passenger train service. There's no reason Amtrak must have a monopoly, and the obvious contractors are already out there: They're called railroads. They know how to run trains, and have the means. The head of the Union Pacific said recently that his company wouldn't undertake service on its own, but might consider doing so under contract. It could make a lot of sense.

The larger point, though, is that train service is good for America. Last year, Amtrak began offering faster service between New York and Boston, and travelers deserted the airlines. Let's expand on that idea. Passenger trains aren't moneymakers, but that's OK. They're worth paying for.

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