Amtrak's hard times

April 27, 2005

THE NATION'S passenger rail system shouldn't be treated like Oliver Twist - starved, orphaned and generally tormented. But Amtrak is, if you'll pardon the expression, getting the Dickens beaten out of it again under the guise of reform. The Bush administration has zeroed out Amtrak's budget to send a "wake-up call" to Capitol Hill. States would be expected to foot a significant share of the corporation's losses and, ultimately, privatize most of Amtrak's services.

It's an ill-conceived plan. In a Senate hearing last week, opposition from both sides of the aisle became clear. Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees Amtrak, said he was "stunned" by the proposal and wants to draft a bipartisan alternative by summer. Democrats were less charitable. Breaking up Amtrak raises difficult questions: Would a state that fails to kick in a subsidy lose rail service? Would unprofitable cross-country lines have to be dropped? Might taxpayers get stuck paying more to keep passenger trains running anyway?

Conservatives may envision a privately run, self-sustaining rail system, but few Western countries can boast such a model. The privatization of British rail during the 1990s, for instance, is widely regarded as a disaster that reduced quality of service and greatly increased public subsidy.

It's wrong to see Amtrak's $1.2 billion budget only as government pork and not part of a long-term strategic national investment. City transit systems require subsidies, so why should intercity rail be held to a higher and unrealistic standard? True, Amtrak always seems to be in turmoil, but 34 years of oversight by a government that doesn't know what it wants hasn't helped matters. Nor has chronic financial deprivation - the miserable condition of much of Amtrak's rail lines and other infrastructure continues to be its biggest problem.

Even Amtrak's newest equipment has cost-related shortcomings. It's not yet clear why the Acela trains suffered the cracked brakes that have sidelined most of the fleet until summer, but budget constraints during the train's development may have been a factor. Its maker, Bombardier Inc. and Alstom, offered Amtrak the lowest-cost product and best financing terms. And cost-cutting Amtrak officials pushed the trains into service without extensive testing.

Yes, Amtrak needs a long-term strategic plan, but it also needs an appropriate level of financial support - and the political will to stick with those choices. It could cost billions more to upgrade tracks and the overhead electrical lines in the Northeast corridor alone, but that's a fraction of what the federal government spends on highways and airports.

Though it will never be a money-maker, Amtrak can be a great economic asset to the nation. Having to beg each year for a bit more budgetary gruel from the White House and Congress diminishes the system's potential - but going begging to the states can only make matters worse.

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