The national passenger rail service, Amtrak, has existed hand-to-mouth for so long it's hard to conceive of it ever attaining promised self-sufficiency and attracting waves of new travelers. Amtrak chugs slowly along just short of bankruptcy, getting its annual subsidies from Congress mainly because there are still vocal rail fans out there in lawmakers' home districts.
"Slowly" may be the key word. Amtrak's train service, typically peaking out at about 79 miles per hour, is a distant whistle blast from the high-speed service that makes rail travel competitive in other industrialized countries. Critics charge that the nationalized service has never made the investments needed to move US passenger service into the modern age. Instead of building the new rail lines that allow faster trains, it has tried to improve and maintain older technology.
Not that Amtrak doesn't have plans. The East Coast corridor connecting Washington, New York, and Boston has long been slated for new track and a move to faster electrified trains. That project is supposed to be finished by 1998. And there are experiments in the making elsewhere as well, such as a high-speed link between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, it appears that Amtrak will get another barely sustaining subsidy from Congress this year. If current budget negotiations hold, an extra $2 billion over the next five years could "rescue" Amtrak. The system has consumed $19 billion in subsidies since its launch in the early 1970s. Over the same period, rail's share of the travel market drooped from 7.5 percent to 3.6 percent.
Of course, those numbers can't simply be laid at Amtrak's doorstep. The historical trend away from rail travel in the US is clear. Still, after decades of rising subsidies and declining service, it may be time to decide whether the current Amtrak structure will ever be capable of giving the country the kind of high-speed, high-tech service that could coax people away from cars and planes. The Amtrak restructuring bill just introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R) of Texas deserves careful consideration, since it offers some ways of easing the perennial financial crunch. And we await with interest the findings of a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the House Transportation Committee to assess the future of intercity rail service.
It does have a future, as passengers in Europe or Japan can attest.