Amtrak: down -- but far from out

remember all those dire predictions about what would happen if Amtrak's budget was cut back as part of the Reagan administration budget reductions? Amtrak, so the warnings went, would be destroyed as a national railroad passenger system. Or, at least, the system would be so truncated as to virtually eliminate most runs. Well, the cuts have been made and guess what?

Amtrak's board has approved a plan to restructure routes while trimming passenger service something like a modest 10 percent.

Welcoming the belt-tightening and front-office economizing that have enabled the National Railroad Passenger Corporation -- as Amtrak is formally known -- to make its cuts is not in any sense to slight the necessity for or sheer pleasure of railroad travel. There is probably no more enjoyable way to journey through a region of picturesque beauty as say the Pacific Northwest or Uppwer Midwest on a cool autumn day than by passenger train. But at the same time it has been absolutely essential that Amtrak officials demand of themselves the same attention to efficiency and cost-accounting required of every other business and profession in American society, including competing private transportation systems. That they have now done so, and apparently with minimum sacrifice to the traveling public, should be looked upon as a matter of genuine achievement.

The carrier, it should be recalled, originally sought a 960 million subsidy for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Then it said it could meet its obligations with $853 million. The administration proposed $613 million. Congress compromised after a grass-roots citizens campaign in favor of Amtrak and granted $735 million.

The actual cuts in passenger service have been modest. Several unprofitable runs have been dropped, such as the Shenandoah between Washington and Cincinnati via West Virginia, the Pacific International between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. , and the North Star, between Chicago and St. Paul. Several other more marginal runs have been trimmed back somewhat. Some heavily traveled routes, such as the Metroliner between Washington and New York, will be slightly reduced. But remaining Metroliners may be allowed to actually step up timetables and shorten traveling times.

The restructured route system is only one way Amtrak has adjusted to its $118 million budget cut. Equally as important, there has been a 25 percent reduction in its 1,400-person headquarters staff. Until just the past few months, for example, the carrier had some 16 or so employees dealing with press and employee relations. Now that number has been reduced. The carrier has also made reasonable changes in food service. Henceforth, food preparation will be subcontracted to private catering firms, cooked prior to departure, and then warmed abroad the trains -- just the way airlines now handle food service.

Mean while, Amtrak, for all the publicity about its cutbacks and slightly reduced service, is continuing with its modernization program involving new and rebuilt equipment and tracks. The carrier has also announced diversifications into outside private business ventures.

All in all, Amtrak officials have a legitimate right to "toot their whistles" for the creditable changes now underway. The American public has clearly indicated that it wants Amtrak to continue.That being the case the railroad must use the moment to continue its tough process of administrative and route overhauling while moving aggressively forward with modernization. There is no reason why Amtrak cannot do even a better job in ensuring the future of passenger rail service in the U.S.

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