IN an Amtrak promotional brochure ``the magic of the train'' meets the ``convenience of the plane'' on a unique air-rail vacation. Take Amtrak from Chicago to Los Angeles, for example, and a week or two later fly United Airlines from Los Angeles back to Chicago. The brochure promises ``the best of both worlds'' - for only $465.
This blend of train and plane travel typifies the new Amtrak. After a 23-year record of mixing magic with halting reliability, and several tragic accidents, Amtrak wants to ride a new course into a future that has plenty of curves.
On the bright side for Amtrak:
* Thomas Downs, a former New Jersey transportation commissioner, has just been named the railway's new president. As a former top-level transportation official in President Carter's administration, Mr. Downs is expected to be an effective advocate for Amtrak in dealing with a Congress edging away from the support of the past.
* The number of Amtrak passengers on most lines continues to increase as people seek alternatives to cars and avoid higher airline prices. Some states, like car-fat California, want improved rail service to avoid more freeway construction. Amtrak ridership nationally has increased from 9 million in 1982 to 11.3 million in 1992.
* To replace old engines, Amtrak will use German- and Swedish-made lightweight, high-speed trains in 1994. Some 44 new diesel locomotives will soon replace older models, along with 140 new bi-level passenger cars.
* In terms of fuel use, Amtrak is about twice as efficient as commercial airlines in energy consumption per passenger mile.
* And unlike Presidents Reagan and Bush, President Clinton supports Amtrak. He recommended an additional $188 million for Amtrak in the stimulus package. Amtrak has cost the country $15 billion since it first pulled away from the station.
``In the Northeast corridor between New York and Washington, D.C.,'' says Clifford Black, a spokesman for Amtrak, ``we carry 45 percent of all travelers, and more passengers than any airline. But none of our routes is profitable when overhead and infrastructure costs are included.''
ON the negative side, according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report, Amtrak has postponed major maintenance and overhauls for many of its 1,798 passenger cars and has ``no clear criteria for determining when a passenger car should be removed from service for safety reasons.'' One railroad union official called Amtrak, ``the duct-tape railroad.''
The GAO report was released in September, on the same day Amtrak's Sunset Limited was derailed into an Alabama bayou with almost 50 lives lost. The cause of the derailment was a damaged bridge, struck earlier by a barge.
``In terms of safety,'' Mr. Black says, ``we are the equivalent of the airlines, about 0.03 fatalities per 100 million passenger miles, which is one-tenth of the fatality rate of automobiles.''
Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers in Washington, D.C., says beyond maintenance problems, ``quality improvement at Amtrak includes raising the morale of the crews [in order] to improve the service.''
On-time performance for long-distance routes fell from 51.2 percent to 37.8 percent from June 1992 to last June. ``Amtrak is a long way from the efficiency and cleanliness of trains in Europe or Japan,'' says a traveler who recently rode Amtrak from Boston to Washington.
Amtrak has always been subsidized by the United States government. Under the cost-cutting leadership of ex-Amtrak president Graham Claytor, the railway went from recovering less than half of its operating costs to collecting nearly 80 percent from fares.
For fiscal 1994, Congress allocated $351.7 million in operating costs for Amtrak and $194 million for capital costs. Another $204 million goes to a high-speed, electrification rail improvement project for part of the Northeast corridor from New Haven, Conn., to Boston. The tracks there are among the oldest in the nation.
``Our trains in the Northeast are profitable above the rails,'' Black says, ``but the costs of stations, tracks, and signal systems means we lose about $200 million a year. Unlike an airline or bus company, which may pay fuel taxes or a landing fee, infrastructure is furnished by municipalities or the state.''
Much of Amtrak's future hinges on the success of the Northeast corridor project. With electrified high-speed trains, traveling up to 186 miles an hour, travel between Boston and New York could be three hours instead of five. Airline travel takes an hour, but passengers usually add an hour to get to and from the airports.
The Swedish train being tested by Amtrak, with a special tilting system, can zoom through curves at 125 miles an hour. Diesel trains can manage curves at 80 miles an hour.
The project is popular in Congress, particularly with the transportation committee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which still sees Amtrak as viable.
If the high-speed project proves to be successful, the future of Amtrak might be found in other high-speed services along corridors such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, or Chicago to Detroit.