If Ronald Reagan had gotten his way, Amtrak would have been liquidated in the early 1990s.
It was a bad idea then and it's a worse idea now. Recent events - including the suspension of all air travel in the days after Sept. 11 - have demonstrated how naked the United States would be without a functioning and reliable rail passenger system. Meanwhile, the slow starvation of Amtrak continues and fixing it eludes and frustrates Congress.
President George W. Bush seems to have decided that it should limp on unfixed. It has never made a profit in its 31 years and lost $1.2 billion last year. That's a long time for the nation to make up its mind. In its most recent crisis, Amtrak's banks shut off its credit and it lumbers on like a dying cow.
The alternative to making Amtrak healthy is obvious: paving over an increasing share of the American landscape. This will involve such congestion-relieving activities as the Boston plan to sink its clogged highways in a "big dig" that has already soaked up $8.5 billion in federal subsidies.
It will also involve increasing congestion at the nation's airports which, when passenger levels eventually return to normal levels, will tax the capacity of runways and landing slots and cause passengers to curse the difficulty of getting in and out of them.
Proposals to expand Chicago's O'Hare Airport are expected to cost $6.6 billion, another chapter of the paving of America that could be avoided by better, faster rail service.
In smog-choked California, for obvious reasons, they have a better idea. Its governor, Gray Davis, has poured money into the state's passenger rail systems. Capital spending on rail lines in that state have more than tripled and are expected to reach $354 million this year. This meant that the per-passenger subsidies provided by Californians have fallen to $9.15. This is a pretty respectable cost for getting all those emission-belching cars off California's highways.
Amtrak's heaviest burden is the long-distance trains it operates in vast stretches of the West. Many of them must roar through towns in the middle of the night at inconvenient hours.
One plan offered by Bush is to franchise selected routes to private operators. But he is vastly unspecific about how this would work and whether this would include capital subsidies. It amounts to a hybrid system and it is unclear how it might function. It might also provoke fatal opposition from the rail unions.
Meanwhile, Europe and Japan have achieved train speeds that move huge numbers of people between their cities on fast schedules that are attractive to passengers. There is little public debate in those countries about whether this makes sense.
Here, Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson says Amtrak's business model is simply "broken." If it is, it would be nice to know whether either Jackson or Bush has a clear vision of how to fix it.
Amtrak's well-regarded new president, David Gunn, who inherited a system in dire distress, estimates it will need at least $1.2 billion to make it through the next fiscal year. That is $680 million more than Bush is proposing to give it.
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