Washington — Slower than a speeding bullet, less popular than a fleet of Toyotas, unable to leap between cities without a large government subsidy: America's passenger trains -- more specifically, Amtrak.
Even so, most Americans have special affection -- if not outright need -- for them.
In 1960, when the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad was cutting back on its passenger service, essayist E. B. White observed that the train represents "the link with my past, for one thing, and with the city, for another -- two connections I would not like to see broken." But, in an often-repeated pattern, not only did the B&A soon disappear, so did all passenger service in Maine.
Many Americans, disappointed by the mechanical and financial shortcomings of the railroads, nevertheless would agree with Mr. White's sentiments. Amtrak and the rail lobby have contended, moreover, that passenger trains can help the nation's energy situation -- if only more people will ride them.
That message may have gotten through. There are signs that the decline in passenger train ridership may have been checked. Last summer's gasoline lines, coupled with the upward spiral of energy prices, caused Americans to try the rails in record numbers. But it is too early to tell if crisis-induced train travel will stick.
Ridership overall was up 3.8 percent last October and November over that period in 1978. Among the largest gainers: the Los angeles-San Diego route, up 42.7 percent; Washington-Cincinnati, up 55.4 percent; Chicago-Texas, up 39.5 percet.
By December, however, ridership on some lines -- most importantly the New York-Washington "metroliner", keystone of Amtrak's "Northeast corridor" -- had slipped back to mediocre levels. But Amtrak spokesman John McLeod attributes the downturn to seasonal factors and scheduling adjustments.
Two recent developments, meanwhile, seem to have brought a degree of efficiency to Amtrak's 23,000-mile system:
* Congress late last year pruned 14 percent of the routes, reducing duplicative and unproductive lines, and it also gave Amtrak more than $700 million over the next three years to buy new equipment and upgrade train stations. Cars already have been refurbished on the Lake Shore Limited, linking Boston to Chicago. Double-deck cars are being added to long- distance Western routes.
* In late December, the US Justice Department filed suit at Amtrak's request against Southern Pacific Railroad, alleging violation of federal law in favoring freight trains over passenger trains on the New Orleans-Houston leg of Amtrak's New Orleans-los Angeles run. This is the first time Amtrak has fought for passenger-service priority in court.
The suit has caused railroads participating in the Amtrak system to "take Amtrak more seriously," says Barry Williams of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), a pro-train lobby. The result, Mr. Williams says, is that "on-time" performance of Amtrak has improved.
But many problems remain. Amtrak is under congressional orders to sever routes that do not meet a minimum ridership standard of 150 passenger-miles per train-mile by mid-1981. Long distance routes, such as Chicago to Texas, are particularly threatened.
The US Department of Transportation, however, is producing a detailed study of "emerging corridors" between major cities that need high-speed rail service. The study recommends at least minimum service for these links: Dallas- Houston-San Antonio; Oakland-Sacramento; Los Angeles- Las Vegas; Las Vegas-San Diego; Seattle-Portland; Chicago-Cincinnati via Indianapolis; Chicago-Cleveland; Chicago-St. Louis; Chicago-Detroit; Chicago-Minneapolis via Milwaukee; and New York-Buffalo.
Future rail service for these corridors remains in the hands of skeptical government budgetmakers who already are spending more than $200 million a year to keep the existing system going.
Energy efficiency of trains is a matter of debate. While a fully loaded train may save energy, studies show a half- empty one is only half as efficient as an intercity bus. And the old equipment fouls the air.
"Amtrak, on the average," points out the American Conservative Union, which favors rail deregulation, "does have a lower pollution rate per passenger-mile than the airplane and the automobile, but it pollutes more than its true competitor, the intercity bus."
But NARP contends that new equipment and continued support of Amtrak will pay off in the future. "Energy savings resulting from continued improvement in US rail passenger service," a NARP study concludes, "would grow at an increasing rate and has the potential of reaching 300,000 barrels of oil per day."
At present, slow service and circuitous routes continue to be nagging problems. Trying to get from Dallas to Houston on a route that doglegs through Fort Worth and Temple takes nine hours; by auto, the trip can be made in less than four hours.
Although Amtrak's optimistic aim is to offer 120-m.p.h. service by 1990 in the Northeast corridor, the likelihood that it will be able to compete with airlines is remote. Rail currently holds down only 7 percent of intercity travel; airlines do 73 percent and buses 16 percent.
A recent Washington-to-New York journey aboard a metroliner cost $32; for an Eastern Airlines "shuttle" the price was $51. The train trip -- bumpy at first, but soon adjusted to -- consumed almost four hours as opposed to 45 minutes by airplane. But the metroliner coaches were comfortable, the atmosphere pleasant, and traveling city-center to city-center proved convenient.
Still, much will have to be improved in the next years to make Amtrak less of a "link with the past" and more of a competitive mode of business travel.