AMTRAK HAS GOOD reason to look overseas with envy. The nation's passenger rail network has never received the subsidies it needs -- or that other nations expect -- since Congress created the system 30 years ago.
In the United States, the system scrambles for funds while the European Community plans to link key cities by a 12,000-mile, high-speed rail system. The system's cost: $100 billion.
The General Accounting Office concluded in May that Amtrak needs $9.1 billion in capital investments over the next 15 years to provide needed improvements of Northeast corridor bridges and tunnels and to upgrade the corridor to a level where only routine maintenance is needed.
Amtrak, which has seemed to struggle since its inception, should not remain a transportation-funding caboose. A faster and more modern system could give travelers a convenient alternative to inter-city trips by auto or airplane.
Congress has an opportunity to do something about it. The High Speed Rail Investment Act would give Amtrak authority to issue $10 billion in bonds over 10 years. Bondholders would receive tax credits. The measure would cost taxpayers $752 million over five years and $3.2 billion over 10 years.
The federal subsidy would give Amtrak a steady funding source -- such as highways and mass transit have enjoyed for the past nine years. The money would help build and improve bridges, power stations and speeds. Improvements would help some lines reach the 150 mile-per-hour speed that Amtrak's long-delayed Acela service promises.
The legislation has bipartisan support and would help Amtrak begin to keep pace with European rail.