A one-two punch for a struggling Amtrak

A report critical of the service is expected today, on the heels of a derailment in Iowa.

The unexplained derailment of an Amtrak train in rural Iowa could not have happened at a worse time for the federally subsidized passenger system.

Already under attack for missing budget targets, Amtrak is hoping to gain $30 billion to expand high-speed rail around the country. Saturday's derailment, in which one person was killed and 96 other passengers were injured, is a blow to its prestige and another reminder of its continuing problems.

Today, a congressionally appointed oversight board is scheduled to release a report recommending stripping away some of Amtrak's duties and appointing a federal commission to oversee some functions.

"Instead of becoming commercially profitable or operationally self-sufficient as Congress had hoped, Amtrak has required federal capital and operating subsidies totaling over $23 billion since inception of operations in 1971," the oversight board, known as the Amtrak Reform Council, concluded in a draft report in December. The council's new plan offers various scenarios that would separate Amtrak's train operations from its infrastructure functions and create a new government commission that would manage funding and develop policy for the system.

Details still forthcoming

It's not clear how Saturday's accident happened. Along a straightaway in southwest Iowa, the westbound California Zephyr was traveling 17 miles per hour below the speed limit when an unusual tug occurred, according to the conductor. By the time the conductor brought the train to a stop, several cars were already jumping the tracks.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are paying close attention to the track and the railroad bed for clues, although they cautioned it's too early to tell for sure.

"Something appears to have been wrong back in the train between the interface of the wheels and the rail," lead investigator Ted Turpin said at a news conference Sunday.

Saturday's accident marks the sixth and most serious Amtrak accident since a train struck a truck at a railroad crossing in Bourbonnais, Ill., two years ago. That crash caused 11 deaths and injured more than 100.

According to NTSB officials, the track is inspected visually three times a week and by ultrasound monthly. The ultrasound can detect fissures that develop inside the track.

Amtrak doesn't own most of the track its trains run on. Except for 366 miles in the northeastern United States, known as the Northeast Corridor, and a few other small segments, the nation's rail passengers ride on tracks owned by various freight railroads.

This lack of track ownership doesn't imperil passengers, safety experts point out, because freight companies also are keen to prevent accidents. But it does discourage track upgrades that would allow passenger trains to run faster, they add.

For decades, carrying freight has proved far more profitable than carrying people. That's why in 1970 Congress stepped in to create and fund Amtrak to continue passenger service.

It has proved to be a mostly money-losing proposition. While other forms of transportation have grown in the past decade, rail ridership remains virtually unchanged, according to the Amtrak Reform Council. And while Amtrak claims to have trimmed its losses, the system still has not proved that carrying people can turn a profit - which it's supposed to do by the end of next year.

Fourteen of 41 Amtrak routes lost more money per passenger last year than the year before, according to U.S. News & World Report magazine, which obtained an internal Amtrak analysis.

In addition, its move into high-speed rail between Boston and Washington was delayed a year because of technical problems. But since the 150-mile-per-hour service was introduced in December, Amtrak says ridership has been rising steadily.

Hopes for expansion

Amtrak hopes the initial success of its high-speed service will persuade Congress to expand high-speed rail to other parts of the US. But the service will have to convince a skeptical Congress that it can be trusted to manage the necessary funds judiciously.

"What's going on is a long-term distrust of Amtrak by Congress and a refusal to really fund Amtrak to what it needs to provide a good service," says Carl Martland, of the civil and environmental engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "Amtrak is a system the country needs. We should be spending more money, not forcing them to live on less."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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