A Future on Track

THE budget cuts announced this week by Amtrak represent a last-ditch effort to preserve national passenger rail service. Amtrak is seeking to close a budget gap of nearly $200 million by reducing the frequency of trains and laying off about a fifth of its staff.

But the future for passenger trains in the United States may not be all that bleak. Amtrak plans this winter to award a contract for 26 new high-speed trains to serve the Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington.

Travel times on the new trains should compete with those of air travel, once the time required for airport check-in, etc., is factored in. The Boston-New York run, for instance, should take less than three hours, as compared with up to five hours currently.

The goals are to turn a profit on Northeast corridor service and to demonstrate to the half a dozen other high-population-density corridors in the US that it can be done.

European high-speed trains run on so-called dedicated lines, specially built on their own rights of way.

Amtrak's concept for high-speed rail is to put ``smarter'' trains on existing tracks. One of the bidders for the Amtrak contract, for instance, the Swedish firm ABB, has attracted wide attention with the ``active tilting'' and ``radial steering'' technologies found on its X2000 train, which can travel at high speeds safely and comfortably over twisting and winding tracks.

The Amtrak approach requires upgrading those tracks, improving signaling systems, and protecting grade crossings, but spares the enormous expense of new rights of way.

Passenger rail ``works'' in Europe not only because of the shorter distances and higher air fares there, but because of widespread acceptance of public subsidy of the service - the very thing that marks passenger rail as a failure in the US. It is hard to imagine Amtrak advocacy in the new Congress, with a leadership largely from the Sun Belt, where alternatives to the auto are regarded with suspicion. But individual states affected by Amtrak cutbacks may be able to help finance continued service.

Ultimately, of course, the US doesn't need passenger rail per se; it needs transportation. Electric cars, new or improved mass transit, and minimal-noise aircraft may all have a part in the transportation mix of the future.

But the Amtrak project for high-speed trains strongly suggests that in certain sections of the country, rail should be part of that mix.

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