Rolling, Rolling ... Oops

Amtrak is experiencing its own dog days of August, with multiple interruptions of its popular high-speed service between Boston and Washington.

About two-thirds of the Acela trains were back on schedule early in the week, only to have service decelerate again when four of the repaired locomotives were found to have previously undiscovered cracks in their suspension mechanisms.

Much is being said about how this could be the final blow to a passenger rail system that appeared to be on the verge of showing that it could win riders away from the airlines.

Yet there are other ways to view the situation. The Acela trains, capable of 150 miles per hour, have acquired a faithful ridership, which is likely to stay with them despite the current repairs and premium ticket prices. Clearly, many people welcome an alternative to airports and highways.

But Amtrak faces major hurdles – beyond current equipment problems – in offering that alternative. The highest is the need for substantial capital investments in the tracks and electrification systems that the Acelas must use. Rebuilding them so the trains can reach top speed on more of their route will cost $5 billion to $12 billion.

Amtrak is asking Congress for an overall appropriation of $1.2 billion next year. Approval of that in time to keep trains running is iffy at best.

The rail system has better management now, with an experienced and shrewd CEO in David Gunn. Its Acela experiment raises the hope of brighter things ahead. What's most needed now is a Congress willing to make the ongoing investment to keep the trains rolling.

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