With energy prices high and likely to go higher in the years ahead, it would make sense for the nation to embrace a transportation policy that puts a premium on energy efficiency. Transportation, along with electrical power generation, is the country's biggest consumer of fossil and renewable fuels. So what is the most fuel-efficient form of transportation available in the U.S. today?
Believe it or not, it's Amtrak. According to a recent study published by the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Amtrak uses less energy per passenger mile than cars, airlines or even subways and commuter rail systems. In fact, the relative disadvantage of commercial airlines and cars is particularly pronounced - both use more than one-fifth more energy per passenger mile than Amtrak's trains.
The study doesn't take into account rail's many additional environmental benefits. Passenger trains tend to support pedestrian- and transit-oriented development, for instance, while emissions from aircraft have a far worse impact on global warming because of the high altitude.
Yet Amtrak continues to be treated as little more than an afterthought in national energy and environmental policy discussions. President Bush has proposed spending just $800 million on Amtrak in fiscal 2008. That's a half-billion dollars less than was spent the year before.
The general public has been far more supportive. Ridership has increased each of the last four years, and Amtrak officials note that it's up again this year. The biggest gains were posted on relatively short routes of 500 miles or less outside the Northeast, where it's already popular.
In general, Amtrak recovers about 67 percent of its operating costs through sales, but the rest requires a taxpayer subsidy - much in the same way that highways, bridges, airports, transit buses and other forms of transportation infrastructure are government subsidized.
What passenger rail really needs is billions of dollars in additional capital investment - to replace aging equipment and upgrade track in order to provide faster, more efficient service that would allow Amtrak to better compete with no-frills airlines.
From China to Germany, other countries are making that kind of investment in the future while the U.S. sits on the sidelines. High-speed rail has enormous potential, but it first requires government support.