To meet the growing demand for travel, new high-speed rail lines are being
built in 15 industrialized countries, from France and Germany to Japan. The demand
for intercity railroads in our country also is obvious: Amtrak maintains healthy
ridership despite limited service and high fares.
The threat of terrorism since Sept. 11 clearly points to the need for reduced
dependency on air travel, and shows the advantages of using different modes for
However, in the United States, Amtrak not only lacks clear policy support for
a passenger rail system, but has been the target of attacks. While Congress and
the Bush administration quickly approved $15 billion in emergency aid for airlines
after Sept. 11 (equal to more than half of all federal funding for Amtrak in 30
years), they struggled to find $200 million for emergency assistance to Amtrak.
In the 1950s, there was a consensus that the country needed an interstate highway
system. Congress devised sources of revenue, and the system was built. Amtrak's
powerful enemies have taken the opposite approach: criticize Amtrak's inefficiencies
and try to stop its funding, while ignoring the need for a national passenger
From its beginnings in 1971, Amtrak has been financed so inadequately that
it has operated near bankruptcy. Having inherited an obsolete system, antiquated
labor rules, and less than full support from the freight railroads whose tracks
it uses, Amtrak has never been able to meet the country's need for attractive,
Using British railway privatization as a model, Congress in 1997 founded the
Amtrak Reform Council. Congress charged the council with overseeing Amtrak's "glide
path to self-sufficiency" - covering operating costs from fares - by 2002.
For Amtrak, this was totally unrealistic. "Self-sufficiency" cannot be achieved
by any passenger railway in the world, nor by our highway system, with this accounting
Since 1997, the British privatization model has resulted in major accidents,
breakdown of services, and bankruptcy for the owners of the railroad tracks. The
Amtrak Reform Council - whose membership includes several enemies of passenger
rail - recommended breaking up Amtrak. It perpetuated the myth that the problem
is Amtrak, rather than misguided national policies. It is easy to criticize Amtrak's
service, but no other organization could operate successfully receiving only 1
percent of federal transportation funds.
What is the solution?
(1) Reaffirm as federal policy that the country needs an efficient national
passenger rail system, one that provides reliable transportation independent of
congested highways and airways.
(2) Further develop cooperation with states such as California and Oregon,
which have separate contracts with Amtrak, while retaining Amtrak as a national
(3) Make major organizational improvements to Amtrak. Amtrak president David
Gunn, who has a record of turning around large transit systems such as those in
Philadelphia, New York City, Washington and Toronto, has started this process.
(4) Create a plan for stable and adequate federal financing for Amtrak. Like
highways, this may consist of allocations from the general budget, or a "nickel
per gallon for Amtrak" gasoline tax.
Various cost-cutting possibilities also could exist if Amtrak worked closely
with state governments and privatized some services.
The Bush administration should join with congressional leaders to create a
modern national rail system. It would provide comfortable, congestion-free intercity
transportation that would complement auto and air travel.
Vukan R. Vuchic is professor of transportation systems engineering at the
University of Pennsylvania.
Copyright 2002 Philadelphia Inquirer