Dividing lines

October 25, 2005

Amtrak has been mismanaged, ridiculed, financially starved and neglected over the years. What more insults can be heaped upon the nation's bedraggled intercity rail passenger service? How about ripping out its heart? That's essentially what Amtrak's own board of directors wants to do by splitting off the Northeast Corridor. And the surgery is being conducted quietly. The board's resolution to hand the corridor over to a consortium of the federal government and the states was approved last month - but the information wasn't widely disseminated until it was reported on by an industry newsletter Oct. 12.

Congress needs to stop this before Amtrak gets railroaded out of business. The Northeast Corridor carries more than half of the system's riders. But it's costly to operate. Amtrak owns the line and has had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade it and address backlogged maintenance. Remove the Northeast Corridor from the system and Amtrak loses a great deal of political clout. Once its coalition of supporters in Congress is undercut, the dismantling of Amtrak into a bunch of regional operations underwritten by the states can continue without fear of intervention.

One would think that $3 gasoline might have changed a few attitudes about passenger rail service. The country needs more, not fewer, transportation options. Amazingly, Amtrak is doing pretty well despite its troubles. A record 25.37 million passengers rode Amtrak during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a 1.3 percent increase over the previous year. Considering the five-month suspension of Acela Express trains this year (because of brake problems) and the hurricanes that disrupted service to the Gulf Coast, that's a remarkable achievement.

Yet there are many who would love to see Amtrak and its $1.2 billion operating subsidy deleted from the federal budget. They've been able to force the system into such a crippled, hand-to-mouth existence that it's a wonder things aren't worse. Critics claim Amtrak service outside the Northeast has been neglected. They're right. Trouble is, so has service in the Northeast. Ask any Acela rider. A few spare brake parts would have been nice - if Amtrak could afford them.

The political standoff between the White House and Congress has so far kept Amtrak in business, but it's also kept it half-starved. At least the impasse means the nation's options remain open. If $3-a-gallon gas can't generate greater interest in passenger rail, might $5? How about $6? Surely, there's some point at which even the most hardened skeptics will recognize the advantages of a fully functional passenger rail system.

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