Amtrak had a brief resurgence last year as the Sept. 11 attack decreased air travel and more people took the trains. But ridership was still down by a few percentage points in the closing months of 2001.
The passenger rail system's biggest challenge, however, may not be flaccid ridership numbers, but the restructuring plans due soon from the congressionally appointed Amtrak Reform Council.
That body was set up in 1997 when Congress last reauthorized Amtrak. Its mandate was to monitor the system's progress toward a December 2002 deadline for financial self-sufficiency - i.e., no more subsidies.
Last November, the reform council concluded Amtrak wouldn't make that deadline, and will make recommendations formally in February. They reportedly will include breaking up the system, putting in government hands some of the responsibility for track and other infrastructure, and opening up to private ownership intercity lines now run by Amtrak.
This may look like the end of the line for Amtrak. But it really should be seen as an opportunity to finally find a place for rail. That form of travel will never beat air travel for speed, but with truly modern, high-speed trains, it could compete.
Amtrak has inched toward that ideal. Its Acela trains in the Northeast corridor, however, have been held back by outdated track and electrification systems. Breaking off a new government-backed entity to concentrate on infrastructure might not be a bad idea. And if other companies are interested in bidding for routes now run by Amtrak, why not let them?
States and other regional players are showing interest in improving passenger rail service. Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and other Midwest states are making their own investments in better track and signaling systems - all preparatory to higher-speed trains. California is well along in designing a high-speed rail network.
What should come from the reform council report is better, wide-ranging thinking about rail travel. That has to include serious attention to the continued public investment needed to make any system work, a need the reform council recognizes.
Amtrak may stay in the picture, but the picture itself shouldn't be limited to one somewhat-discredited model.