The wrong track

February 09, 2005

AFTER SO MANY years of slowly strangling Amtrak, the Bush administration has chosen a more expedient course -- killing it altogether. Mr. Bush may be the Dr. Kevorkian of public transportation. At least the latter's patients were dying. The U.S. passenger rail system has been on the mend, gradually attracting more riders and operating more efficiently. Amtrak survived near-bankruptcy a few years back. Can it survive W?

The answer is probably yes, but a crippled passenger rail system isn't much better than none at all. Amtrak still has its core supporters on Capitol Hill -- and they're already speaking out against the Bush plan to break Amtrak up into two private companies, one to operate long-distance trains and the other to own the busy Northeast corridor. Individual states or groups of states could run the trains, but they'd have to foot all the operating costs.

The Bush plan is nonsense, of course. An interstate passenger rail system is in the national interest and therefore a federal responsibility. The economics of private ownership don't work. Amtrak was created in 1971 for that very reason. If, tomorrow, the federal government was willing to buy and maintain the nation's thousands of miles of railroad tracks, then maybe private ownership could flourish (just as cars, buses and trucks get the benefit of the nationally financed highway system), but that isn't on anybody's drawing board.

Remember how useful Amtrak proved when the airports closed after the 9/11 attacks? Perhaps the White House doesn't. The Amtrak subsidy -- $1.4 billion this year -- is a pittance compared with what this country is spending to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. One of Amtrak's biggest problems is deteriorating rail lines and equipment, a product of too long and too much deferred maintenance. And we're surprised that trains can't run on time?

We believe Amtrak's got the right leader in no-nonsense CEO David Gunn. But he's no miracle worker. He needs an adequate federal subsidy to keep the system going -- and to invest in infrastructure. This isn't rocket science. The thriving passenger rail systems in Western Europe all require some level of government financing. The U.S. system needs that, too -- just as cities and states must subsidize intrastate mass transit systems. No one state should have to assume a burden that rightfully falls on the federal government.

How badly does America need a national rail service? It's impossible to know the future. Who could predict 9/11, or the next gasoline shortage? Or air pollution crisis? The better question is, why wreck Amtrak? We don't see the compelling interest. Amtrak handles an average 66,000 passengers each day, or 24 million a year. They're not irrelevant, just neglected.

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