Is this any way to run a railroad?

The Reagan-stockman budget poses a mortal threat to Amtrak. If unaltered, the proposed subsidy -- which is some $240 million lower than the amount Amtrak sees as minimally necessary -- could result in eliminating every train outside the Northeast corridor. Since Congress is said to oppose anym federal subsidy for a mere regional system, the United States may end up with no trains at all.

This will be a tragedy. Abandoning America's rail passenger system in order to save $240 million is penny-wise, pound- foolish, and inexcusable.

To begin with, Amtrak has at last reached a satisfactory and steadily improving level of performance. For the past year, its new and newly refurbished equipment has been going into service. Ridership has increased as a result; the trains are full. Equally important, on-time performance has improved dramatically, and there have been savings due to lower maintenance costs and fewer breakdowns and delays. How absurb to remove these trains and write off recent expenditures for fine new cars just as they begin to prove their effectiveness.

Amtrak must of course do all it can to reduce the size of its deficit -- by raising fares (within reason), by continuing to cut costs and improve operating efficiency, by seeking better agreements with labor, the railroads, and city and state governments. But the present management is already at work in these areas. Amtrak has learned, as it were, how to run a railroad; this is no longer the makeshift operation that bumbled haltingly through the '70s.

The point is that even with Amtrak's best effort there must still be a subsidy. This is not a swear word. A good transportation system is as much in the "national interest" as a good defense system -- and as dependent upon public support. At one level of government or another, Americans have always subsidized transportation. They still do. Let them therefore do so wisely.

The private sector, left to itself, will offer no trains at all, some buses and airplanes, and a whole continent full of private autos. Such a system will neither save money nor best serve needs.

Moreover, it will still be publicly supported. The bus enjoys the indirect but indispensable subsidy of a highway network paid for by tax dollars, and the airplane enjoys subsidies that extent from the factory to the control tower and the airport. Without such benefits neither mode could offer service at affordable prices.

That leaves the auto. The taxpayer has been willing to pay for building highways because he wants to drive on them; he may feel differently as he keeps experiencing the well-nigh prohibitive costs of maintaining them. The automobile as the centerpiece of the US transportation system will in no way reduce the total tax bills (nor rescue the economy, nor lessen US reliance upon foreign oil).

The question, then, is not whether to subsidize transportation but how to allocate the subsidies. Total dependence upon highway and air travel is strategically unsound, financially shortsigted, ecologically harmful, and unconscionably wasteful.

The administration believes that a "protracted conventional war" with the Soviet Union could occur and is designing military strategy to fit. The ability to move large numbers of people by rail would then become a necessity, especially if, as seems likely, the war involved the Middle East and disrupted oil shipments.

Even without a national emergency there is no reason to shy away from the principle of governmental support for rail travel. All other industrial nations maintain conspicuously better rail service than the US does. They do this at public expense. They grapple with the same economic problems that confront the United States, including inflation, yet none of them is sacrificing or emasculating its rail system in the process.

It may offend the austerity-minded and baffle the jet set and the auto freaks to observe that travel on those foreign trains is an unparalleled delight, but the point is not irrelevant; other societies maintain high-quality rail service because they appreciate its benefits.Not least among these, far from incidentally, is the boon conferred upon the elderly and the handicapped.

Every dollar "saved" by pruning trains out of today's budget will be spent many times over, somewhere, as highway and air travel becomes more expensive. Nothing we have experienced since 1973 warrants the blithe assumption that we will always find enough fuel at prices people are willing to pay. And we surely aren t trying to solve the problem by making travel to expensive that only the wealthy can afford it -- are we?

Remember, too, that the train -- per passenger, per mile traveled -- does the least environmental harm. This does not appear to be a major concern of the new administration, but it remains a concern of the American people (and of their Canadian neighbors, whose problems with acid rain owes something to US exhaust emissions). Financial policies that ignore the environment are not, in the long run, affordable.

Energy remains the decisive factor. A balancedm nationwide transportation system must strive for maximum energy efficiency.It must also offer alternative modes of travel in the event of prolonged fuel shortages or other emergencies. A good rail network is an essential part of such a system, because -- and here, by all logic, is the clincher -- the train is the most energy-efficient way of transporting people. By far.

The US should be adding trains, not eliminating them. If that is impossible in today's climate, let us at least in the name of common sense keep the ones we have.

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