Amtrak: Two Scenarios

Amtrak squeezed through just as the 105th Congress ended its first session. But it's far from certain the passenger rail system can gather steam on the funding grudgingly granted by Congress.

Not that Amtrak can complain. Faced with imminent bankruptcy, it now has $5.2 billion in operating subsidies, retirement funds, and capital improvements through 2002. It also has a restructured management, with greater authority over routes.

It's not hard to imagine Amtrak simply limping along for the next five years, still losing tens of millions of dollars, providing something like its current level of service, and always nearing the end of the line. Influential legislators, like Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee chairman John McCain (R) of Arizona, have made it clear this is the last Amtrak subsidy they'll tolerate.

Also darkening the system's future is labor unrest. A strike by track maintenance workers was averted this fall, but at a price. The wage hike conceded by Amtrak's board of directors angered congressional critics. The bill authorizing new spending was almost derailed by Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who demanded a reconstituted board less responsive to workers' demands.

But there is another, brighter scenario. The $2.3 billion now freed up for rail capital improvement could present the opportunity for Amtrak to surge to a new level of service. Key to that is completion of the electrification and upgrade of Northeast corridor track connecting Washington, New York, and Boston. Amtrak has long promised that by 1999 it will be running high-speed (150 mph) trains along that corridor, proving it can profitably compete with air shuttles.

But Amtrak has to get the infrastructure right - not only improved rails, banked to accommodate new "tilt" trains, but thoroughly rebuilt power lines to ensure consistent service. This project is crucial not only to Amtrak, but to the whole country's transportation future. If it succeeds, similar high-speed rail plans could start moving in Florida, California, and Texas.

Modern rail service, a fixture in Europe and Japan, could yet be in Americans' future. They (and their representatives in Congress) just have to be shown it can work here, too.

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