Amtrak's troubled road


A decade from now, this country's only national passenger railroad could be nearly self-sufficient -- or it could be falling apart. Take your pick.

First, the good news. Amtrak, which was formed out of the shards of bankrupt private railroads in 1971, now carries 21 million travelers a year. Many of its lucrative long-distance routes are gaining new business. Traffic is up 2 million since 1981.

Now the bad news. Amtrak continues to lose money. It covers only 80 percent of operating costs (though that is a marked improvement from 48 percent in 1981). Worse yet, the railroad needs $4 billion in federal money to repair and replace its aging trains, deteriorating stations and decrepit maintenance yards. But the money might not be forthcoming from Washington.

Given the budgetary holddowns in the White House and on Capitol Hill, Amtrak officials will be hard-pressed to retain their BTC $351 million operating subsidy (only half what it once was) and the roughly $200 million allocated this year for capital improvements. Yet without more capital funds, how will Amtrak replace its 40-year-old and 45-year-old rolling stock? How will it pay for new high-speed engines and passenger cars? How will it find the money to upgrade tracks to avoid too-frequent derailments?

Railroads, unlike the airline and automotive industries, can't hide their government subsidies. Thus, Amtrak's troubles could well become a political issue in next year's budget battles. That would be unfortunate. This country needs a modern, popular national railroad that gives Americans a viable, low-polluting travel option. Most other industrialized nations heavily underwrite their passenger railroads. Their governments have made a long-term commitment to rail travel.

It would be shortsighted to abandon Amtrak at this point. The railroad has managed to stagger through the country's recession, in part by cutting back on maintenance. As the economy rebounds, Amtrak will need new rolling stock and a better-maintained system to meet what could be a surge in new ridership, especially on the long-distance runs where Amtrak is most cost-efficient.

"You have to invest in the capital plan, or this railroad will simply die as we know it," said Thomas M. Downs, who took over last month as Amtrak's new president from W. Graham Claytor. "We've delivered a more cost-effective railroad in the short term by not funding our capital plant."

Baltimore is heavily dependent upon Amtrak, especially Metroliner service linking this city to Washington and major cities to the north. If Amtrak finds a way to invest in its future, Baltimore should benefit from increased usage of Pennsylvania Station and its parking and plaza complex now under construction. Riding the rails is too important to this country's well-being to let Amtrak fail.

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