Amtrak's fight for survival Reduced federal support: Passenger rail line tries to innovate, but may never turn a profit.


NOWHERE IN THE world does a national passenger rail system turn a profit. Yet that is what Republicans in Congress insist must happen to Amtrak. They want it self-supporting by 2002. If not, well, too bad. Amtrak will just have to disappear.

That's the hard-line GOP position. But Amtrak carries 22 million passengers through 45 states and most congressional districts. When route cuts loom, Congress usually comes up with more money. Still, in recent years, Amtrak's appropriations have been halved, and more cuts are expected. It may not be a question of self-sufficiency by 2002, but of survival.

To compensate, Amtrak reduced its routes by 20 percent last year. More routes were slated for elimination, but a last-minute infusion of federal funds in September kept four other routes alive until next spring. Then the service reductions will begin anew.

Amtrak's solution is high-speed rail service and new overnight sleeper cars. It wants to invest $2 billion in speedy "tilt" trains along the populous Northeast corridor. Modern sleeper cars are being put on East Coast routes, too, to boost the appeal of these high-profit tickets.

Even this innovative effort is drawing GOP opposition. The House cut all funds for high-speed trains, but was overruled by the Senate. Still, doubt remains that faster and luxurious trains will draw travelers away from airplanes and automobiles.

Price remains a problem. A round-trip Metroliner ticket from Baltimore to New York costs $198; the cheapest round-trip air fares range from $88 to $118. Until Amtrak narrows that gap -- and cuts travel time, too -- it will be at a competitive disadvantage.

Some Republicans want to give Amtrak a permanent funding source to ensure its future. The Senate Finance Committee proposed dedicating a half-cent of the federal gasoline tax to Amtrak. Highway lobbyists helped kill that plan, just as labor lobbyists blocked efforts to free the rail line from onerous work rules.

So Amtrak continues to soldier along while struggling to find the money to introduce high-speed trains in 1999. Perhaps by then, Congress will recognize the contribution that a passenger rail system makes to a great nation and replace Amtrak's starvation diet with a more stabile source of legislative protein.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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