Amtrak's Lament: 'I Think I Can't, I Think I Can't'

Cutbacks in service raise question of whether a national rail network will survive in US

CASSANDRA BLISS, an aspiring New York artist with bulging backpack in tow, rode a Greyhound bus from New York to Wyoming and then switched to Amtrak on her way home. Now she's convinced that by land, Amtrak is the only way to travel.

Only problem is, she may not have a choice in the future. The nation's rail network, now a web of track reaching even medium-sized cities, may be cut back to a few strands linking the major cities. Massive Amtrak cuts announced last week, the largest in the government rail's 23-year-history, may be only the first round. Some experts say that rail is here to stay, while others warn that this will signal the end of the line for Amtrak.

''I'm afraid it's a step that might lead to its demise,'' says Luther Miller, editor of Railway Age, a New York-based trade magazine. ''This is the beginning of the end of a national system.''

Ross Capon, director of the Railroad Passengers group in Washington, D.C., disgrees: ''Amtrak has been in trouble before and come through, so I think that people who are writing its obituary should look at history.''

The cutbacks in 1995 will eliminate 21 percent of Amtrak's service nationwide and completely eliminate routes from Chicago to Milwaukee, St. Louis to Kansas City, New York to Montreal, and Philadelphia to Atlantic City. In addition, 5,500 workers will lose their jobs in the move projected to save $364 million on an annualized basis.

The core of Amtrak's financial problem can be traced to American voters, who in November appeared to say they want sharply less federal spending. Stiff competition from airlines, a few highly publicized rail accidents, and unexpected higher expenses from 1993 floods and the 1993-94 cold winter have only compounded Amtrak's grim finances.

'Why subsidize?'

Typical of the tough voter mood is Raymond James, a warehouse worker from Edison, N.J., waiting for friends at New York's Penn Station. ''If Amtrak is not making any money, why should they operate?'' he asks. ''If they can't compete with the airlines, they have to fall by the wayside with all these other companies.''

A graffito above an advertisement in Penn Station drives home the point. It shows two sock drawers, one a wild mess, the other all neat and folded. Someone has written ''Amtrak'' above the first, and ''Penn Central'' above the second, referring to the private rail line that operated in the northeast before Amtrak's creation in 1971.

One way to straighten out Amtrak's drawer is to renegotiate with its 13 unions, which have 26 separate agreements, says Mr. Capon. ''Some of the inefficiencies come from the multiplicity of unions.''

Service cutbacks is another way, but some commentators say cutting daily trains to every other day or changing hourly trains to every other hour confuses passengers.

''If you don't have this memory-service pattern, people won't ride at all; they'll take the [air] shuttle,'' says Paul Reistrup, Amtrak's president from 1975 to 1978. ''You ought to run it daily or not run at all.''

Ironically, the cuts take effect during a period when Amtrak is earning a greater percentage of its operating expenses than ever before. In 1993, the rail made 80 percent of its daily expenses, the closest to breaking even in the world, up from 42-49 percent in the late 1970s. Yet the number does not include new investment, which brings up the federal subsidy this year to $952 million. And most analysts concur Amtrak will always need a subsidy.

As cuts start to take effect next year, a political battle is likely to ensue, pitting regional politicians defending their local routes against budget axers who do not want to see Amtrak bleeding the federal budget.

''There's going to have to be a down-sizing, simply because the additional monies won't be there,'' says Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, incoming chairman of the House Appropriations' transportation subcommittee. He adds he would like a special commission to review further cuts and says that states who want to keep very unprofitable lines should fork up the money themselves.

Fighting words

Such talk angers Wisconsin's Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), a former member of Amtrak's board of directors whose state will lose its main rail route in the cutbacks. ''Amtrak is a national railroad system and that's what it should be, and it should be funded from the national treasury,'' he says. ''I hope that we can pull together and come up with a system of funding to continue the railroad transportation system as we have it.''

He suggests that the federal government use a penny from each gallon of gasoline tax to support the rails, and if current gas taxes are already allocated, he wants to raise the tax another cent.

Donald Itzkoff, deputy administrator for the Transportation Department's Federal Railroad Administration, sees partnerships between the private and public sector as another solution. But, he says, ''The risk to date has been too great for the private sector to bear.''

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