Reviving rail

July 20, 2006

The Senate is set to approve a $1.4 billion appropriation for Amtrak. That's quite a bit better than the $900 million the Bush administration proposed spending. Whatever amount Congress ultimately approves is likely to keep the system limping along for another year. But Amtrak's federal subsidy may be just about the only thing associated with the railroad that's running on schedule these days.

Ask anyone who rides Amtrak's long-distance routes. A person would almost have a better chance of scratching a winning instant lottery ticket than arriving on time on some of these trains. In June, for instance, fewer than one in six Amtrak trains running between Los Angeles and Seattle reached their destinations less than four hours late. Between New York and Florida, travelers arrived at least three hours late nearly half the time.

For the most part, it's a problem not of Amtrak's own making. Aside from the Northeast Corridor, which Amtrak owns, passenger rail service operates at the mercy of the nation's freight rail operators. They own the tracks - and most of the rail congestion. Foreign trade and rising energy prices have fueled a booming business for freight rail. Capital investments in tracks, switches and other infrastructure have not kept pace.

But passenger rail advocates also question whether freight companies such as CSX and Union Pacific have given priority to Amtrak trains as federal law requires. Freight service is far more profitable than passenger service. Might companies simply be giving priority to their better-paying customers?

That's a question raised by the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a nonprofit that advocates for Amtrak passengers. In a recent letter to the federal board that regulates freight rail service, NARP Executive Director Ross B. Capon called for an investigation into the behavior of freight carriers that regard Amtrak as a "costly nuisance."

We second the suggestion, but we'd also go a step further. The White House and Congress also need to do more to increase the nation's freight capacity. The U.S. Department of Transportation projects that total freight transportation demand will increase 69 percent by the year 2020. The railroads expect to spend $8.3 billion on infrastructure this year, but that isn't enough. Federal tax credits for such investments might spur more - as could public-private partnerships that subsidize critical lines.

The nation's economic future depends on maintaining - and expanding, where feasible - an energy-efficient and reliable freight rail system. If, by addressing that pressing concern, Washington can also solve Amtrak long-distance service woes, then so much the better.

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