Rerailing Amtrak

The tracks have been bumpy for Amtrak. When it was formed in 1971, the system was supposed to be profitable within two years. That never happened, and now the national passenger rail service may be facing its worst crisis ever.

Amtrak's blunt-spoken new president, David Gunn, says he's set to shut the system down if an emergency $200 million loan or appropriation isn't forthcoming by month's end.

That ultimatum has helped focus thought in Washington, where Congress just started hearings on Amtrak's future, and the administration has just announced its plan for a restructured system. That plan follows, to some degree, the recommendations of a congressional Amtrak reform panel, which favored breaking the system up and allowing private operators to bid on some routes.

The administration plan also emphasizes operating partnerships with heavy reliance on state participation and funding. The federal government would withdraw completely from operating subsidies for trains, but would continue to help pay for such capital improvements as better track.

Some variation on this approach may indeed lie down the line for Amtrak. The current approach – struggling to make ends meet on heavily traveled sections like the Northeast Corridor while maintaining expensive long-distance routes in order to please far-flung members of Congress and keep the subsidies flowing – isn't sustainable.

There has to be either a radical restructuring to make the system more efficient or a full-fledged commitment from Congress to amply subsidize the system under its present management. Mr. Gunn argues for the latter, saying that it's no more than Washington does for highways and air travel.

That argument has its weaknesses, however, since rail has required a higher level of operating subsidy and lacks the user-fee funding sources, such as gasoline taxes, available to those other forms of transportation.

For the moment, Congress should come through with money to keep Amtrak running short term. A shutdown would hurt not only Amtrak passengers but rail commuters whose trains rely on Amtrak track and dispatching. After that, it must concentrate on viable long-term solutions.

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