Amtrak is rolling faster -- if budget cuts don't catch it; Cost-cutters took away the tablecloths and fresh flowers -- now they're back

The winter fog is low and thick but Amtrak's Southwest Limited, whistle blowing, moves through town and country alike at a steady, swift clip. Cars traveling parallel roads are often left behind.

''Ninety is our top speed,'' insists Paul Temborius, one of the conductors who works the Kansas City to Fort Madison, Iowa, stretch of the route three times a week. ''Normally the weather doesn't slow us down much -- it's only when you get behind a freight train or go around a curve. . . .''

Mr. Temborius comes from a railroad family and has been a Sante Fe employee, starting in the car department, for 41 years. He is one of those veteran station announcers who, to the delight of passengers, does not hew strictly to the script. The train is not just stopping at Marceline, Mo., for instance, but at ''the boyhood home of Walt Disney.'' And, he says, he's had every possible experience with passengers, from stopping the train for a late arrival to meeting one young mother's plea for more diapers by radioing ahead to the next station to have a new package waiting at the platform.

Some of his passengers, he concedes, do complain now and then - mostly about how dining car service has deteriorated.

''But most of them really love trains, and by and large they're a pretty good bunch,'' he says.

Amtrak officials likely wish more such riders would climb aboard these days to keep the system's trains a little more crowded (ridership has been down). They acknowledge that passenger pleas and letters have played a key role in keeping Amtrak going.

The Reagan administration has proposed cutting this year's $735 million Amtrak budget back to $600 million. While no one on Capitol Hill says Amtrak will get the $788 million it asked for, neither do they think the administration will get the cuts it wants.

''It's common wisdom that the President's budget will be drastically revised -- if it isn't, we're in trouble,'' admits Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), a nonprofit, consumer-oriented organization.

Actually Amtrak has made several significant cuts and other moves over the last year in response to a tightened budget and some specific congressional demands.

While not exactly speeding bullets, Amtrak trains go faster now and their on-time performance has vastly improved. The fleet now averages 50 miles per hour, including stops, compared with 44 m.p.h. in 1979. Congress wants an average speed of 60 or 65. Amtrak officials, who are working to reduce municipal speed limits which often slow trains considerably, agree the increase can and must be made.

Maximum speeds now on most routes are 80 m.p.h., but trains on the Northeast corridor and between New York City and Buffalo sometimes go as fast 110 m.p.h. Amtrak's improved speed and on-time record is largely due to millions of dollars invested over the last few years in track and signal upgrading by US freight railroads and states such as New York, Michigan, and California, and to the increase in new and refurbished Amtrak cars.

''The average age of the fleet is now about three years, compared to 20 when we first took over,'' says Amtrak spokesman Debbie Marciniak. ''It's been a tremendous help to us in on-time performance.''

Although taxpayers still heavily subsidize each passenger ride, Amtrak's revenue-to-cost ratio has been improving. Congress has insisted that 50 percent of operating costs be met through revenues; Amtrak expects to hit that mark before the end of this fiscal year. Beyond that, Amtrak officials have assured Congress that the system will need no operating subsidy by 1985. One way Amtrak expects to make up the gap is by more effective use of its assets, such as real estate holdings, to bring in revenue.

To keep within its current budget limits, Amtrak has made more than $130 million worth of cuts over the last year. They range from a 25 percent cut of staff in the Washington, D.C., headquarters to some $44 million worth of route reductions. But its efforts to delete the Chicago-New York Cardinal, which failed to meet the usual ridership criteria, were rebuffed by Congress. Now the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is recommending anew that the Cardinal be eliminated for a savings of $5 million a year.

Amtrak found rider tolerance of one of its quickest budget-cutting moves, however, was so limited that it had to retreat to a compromise. When Congress decreed last year that the food and beverage deficit must be cut by half, Amtrak officials sharply cut back dining car service. The number of dining car workers was cut by about half and the company resorted to prepackaged, microwave meals, and plastic silverware on long-distance passenger trains.

An extensive Amtrak survey suggested that riders did not object to the food so much as the loss of amenities. So this month, while keeping the manpower cuts in place for the basic dollar saving, Amtrak has put back the tablecloths (this time they're disposable paper), the metal sugar bowls and vases with fresh or silk flowers, and the glass salt and pepper shakers. Also, freshly cooked scrambled eggs and pancakes are back for breakfast and somewhat more kitchen preparation will be required for other meals. For the moment, however, the plastic utensils will stay. Amtrak has an excess supply.

Two other much-discussed possibilities for future cost savings are greater productivity and efficiency in labor and management costs and a proposal to shift more of the operating cost burden to the states. Currently, states pay between 20 and 50 percent of the cost of operating trains within their boundaries. OMB proposes that the states pay 100 percent for a savings of $24 million.

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