Last week, the House of Representatives gave a big boost to the future of passenger rail service in this country. By approving the more than $14 billion, five-year spending plan by a veto-proof majority (which followed similar bipartisan action by the Senate last fall), Congress has not only taken a major step toward ensuring the survival of Amtrak but has also opened up opportunities for improved and expanded service across the nation and in Maryland.
Trouble is, it's not enough.
What looked a year ago like a bold move to thwart the Bush administration's continued efforts to put Amtrak out of business now looks like a timid response to a full-fledged energy crisis. U.S. passenger rail service has been so long neglected and its infrastructure needs are so great that a pledge of $14 billion seems almost laughable if Congress wants to offer intercity travelers a real alternative to fuel-guzzling planes and automobiles.
No doubt the money (assuming it results in actual appropriations) can help make Amtrak a better-functioning railroad. Despite White House protests over a lack of accountability, much of Amtrak's problems stem from Washington's failure to invest in infrastructure.
Take Baltimore's 19th-century train tunnels. The House bill calls for $60 million to study the environment impact of replacing them. But to rebuild or bypass them would likely cost $1 billion or more. And that's just one of the many choke points on the system.
Passenger rail is energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and safe, and can be cost-effective, but it is not free. A nation that has willingly poured so many billions of tax dollars into highways and airports can't expect to acquire European-style train service without a commensurate investment.
Taking Amtrak off its death watch and encouraging states to develop their own high-speed passenger rail corridors is a helpful first step. But Congress needs to take a look around. The nation's freight lines are packed because trains can operate more efficiently than long-haul trucks. Lawmakers need to make far greater long-term investments in freight rail as a matter of economic necessity in an era of $4- to $5-a-gallon fuel.
Passenger rail can work, too, but only if riders are offered comfortable accommodations, competitive prices, an extensive network of destinations and, most important, good on-time performance. Congress has at least started the country down the right track; the White House would be wise not to stand in the way.