Judging by the gaggle of travelers pouring onto trains over the Thanksgiving holiday, you might think that Amtrak is finally enjoying a smooth ride. But you would be wrong. Three decades after Congress created this poor stepchild from the remnants of the freight railroads' money-losing passenger business, Amtrak is closer than ever to derailing.
The Amtrak Reform Council, a federal oversight board, last month formally concluded what most observers have known for years: the nation's floundering passenger-train operator has no chance of becoming self-sufficient by the end of 2002, as Congress mandated five years ago. Now that it's clear Amtrak can't go it alone, Congress and the Bush Administration will have to decide whether to invest up to $100 billion in the kind of high-speed trains that glide along at up to 180 m.p.h. in Europe and Japan--or essentially give up on intercity passenger service altogether.
To many rail enthusiasts, the coming debate is long overdue. "Sept. 11 highlighted an existing problem: we don't have a balanced transportation system," says James RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative, a nonprofit pro-rail group. "One of the reasons we have government is to do things we need that private business won't. No transportation system in the world really makes money."
And U.S. trains, compared with other modes of transportation, don't get much help. Passenger trains receive only 4% as much in federal subsidies as the $13 billion pulled in annually by airports. And highways get even more: $30 billion a year. Speedy, reliable passenger trains could help relieve congestion on the nation's highways and at its airports, especially for trips of 100 to 500 miles. If their railbeds were upgraded and widened to allow them to run faster, they could speed travelers between the business districts of cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, or Chicago and St. Louis, as quickly as the tag team of taxi-airplane-taxi. Trains are also two to eight times as fuel efficient as planes.
That doesn't mean that Amtrak, a creature of pork-barrel politics, is the right entity to revive rail travel. Burdened by the conflicting missions of providing comprehensive nationwide service and making a profit, Amtrak has failed at both. Now many experts are concluding that Amtrak as we know it will probably have to be scrapped--perhaps to be replaced by semiprivatized, regional passenger-train networks.
Since its inception, Amtrak has been saddled with entrenched bureaucracy, outdated equipment and high labor costs for its unionized workers. Thanks to its inconsistent schedules, for example, Amtrak pays heavily to put up stranded crews in hotels. In the past decade, passenger trains have not significantly increased the number of riders, which stands at 22 million a year--about 1% of all intercity travel. Only one Amtrak route, from Washington to New York City, makes money, and many trains amble along as slowly as they did 50 years ago.