And why is it that Congress continues to believe its own fiction that Amtrak will turn a profit by December 2002?
It's time for Congress, and the Bush administration, to confront reality.
Here are some facts worth remembering.
With increased highway gridlock and airport congestion, inter-city rail travel offers an appealing option, if funded properly.
But the United States ranks somewhere between Estonia and Tunisia in its level of support for national rail service.
At the moment, Congress is trying to have it both ways. It insists on maintaining a nationwide passenger-rail operation but doesn't want to pay for it.
Washington has a bad case of "mission conflict," as Amtrak president George Warrington put it last month. Running a nationwide, inter-city passenger rail service is "not compatible" with running a profit, he said.
"If you're a public service provider, you go where the community need is, " Mr. Warrington explained. "If you're a business, you go where the money is. But if you're Amtrak, considering that conflicting mission, which way do you go?"
At the moment, conservative Republicans insist on achieving that profit objective. But those same lawmakers refuse to let Amtrak relinquish routes that serve their states.
Norman Y. Mineta, President Bush's transportation secretary, wants Amtrak to downsize its 22,000-mile route system as a way to turn a profit. That might reduce Amtrak's operating losses, but it won't create a moneymaker.
Only one of the 40-plus Amtrak routes is profitable - the busy Washington-to-New York line that runs through Baltimore. Some critics have suggested Amtrak eliminate nearly all service except its successful routes along the East Coast and West Coast.
That might make a fine private-business plan, but what would Congress and the president offer citizens in the rest of the country?
Amtrak officials have sought to run their trains more like a private company in recent years. Republicans in Congress forced that decision when they mandated in 1997 that Amtrak's self-sufficiency by December 2002.
Cost savings have been set at $1 billion over four years. Amtrak is contracting with private companies to carry more commercial shipments. And Congress' operating subsidy has dropped from $318 million in 1999 to $59 million this year and a requested $40 million for next year.
Both ridership and revenue have risen over the past four years. But so have expenses.
The rail operation remains far from break-even. Federal investigators say Amtrak doesn't even have enough money to make the bare minimum of needed capital improvements.
Last week, Mr. Mineta gave Amtrak permission to borrow $300 million - using part of New York's Pennsylvania Station as collateral - to keep it operating till the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Not only is that move - borrowing to pay for ongoing expenses - unwise, it also underlines the severity of Amtrak's situation.
Meanwhile, unmet capital needs are staggering. Just improving New York's web of tunnels could cost $900 million. Mr. Warrington has proposed a 20-year, $30 billion infrastructure project, but that's a low-ball figure.
Amtrak pins its hope on bringing business-class, high-speed trains to the United States. Yet delays in putting the Washington-to-Boston Acela Express into service this spring contributed mightily to Amtrak's cash crisis.
It's also debatable if Acela Express is the answer.
Yes, Amtrak is buying trains that can hit 150 miles per hour, but antiquated tracks and 150-year-old rights of way make extended high-speed service impossible.
Take, for instance, Baltimore's Civil War-era tunnels. Forget 150 mph: the speed limit is 25 mph. It will take hundreds of millions of dollars to reconstruct those tunnels to accommodate both high-speed passenger trains and double-stack freight trains.
There's another problem - delays. They're common as passenger service takes a back seat to freight trains, whose companies own the tracks.
Still, a network of high-speed passenger rail routes could serve an important national purpose in an era of energy shortages and clogged airports and highways. Fifty-two senators are sponsoring a bill that would let Amtrak float $12 billion in bonds over 10 years to start building such a system.
That could eventually mean a two-hour commute between Washington and New York, which would make taking the train a far more competitive option.
Congress has got to alter its attitude toward Amtrak. It deserves far more federal support. Since Amtrak's creation in 1971, it has received $11 billion in federal support, versus $750 billion in federal support for highways and aviation.
What would train service be like today if Amtrak had gotten even a fraction of that backing? Take a look at the high-speed service from Portland, Ore. to Seattle. The Cascades line - as it is known - has grown 400 percent, to 500,000 yearly customers in seven years.
High-speed routes compare favorably to new highway construction. Adding high-speed tracks in Connecticut, for instance, costs $8 million per mile versus $50 million per lane mile of new interstate road construction. Trains can accommodate far more passengers, too.
Twenty-two million people used Amtrak last year in 45 states. (Baltimore's Penn Station was the eighth busiest with 916,840 boardings.) Just on its Washington-to-New York route, Amtrak carried enough passengers to fill 121 airline flights a day.
Ridership rose 5 percent in the first three months of this year, and ticket revenue jumped 10 percent. The biggest gains were in the west. Given California's energy crisis, there's no telling how many people there would consider using Amtrak for some of their travel if the ride were fast and affordable.
What's lacking is a strong commitment by Congress and the president to national train service. That would require rewriting the 1997 law that cuts off funds to Amtrak a year from December.
Growing ridership is the key, not profitability. Congress must put up enough money to make high-speed connections a reality on Amtrak's major routes.
Americans deserve reliable, modern and efficient passenger rail service, even if it means on-going assistance from Washington.
Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun