In its 32-year history, Amtrak has chugged along like The Little Engine That Could, trying to reach its goal of breaking even. But thinking hasn't made it so, and this government-backed enterprise has always required federal money.
Lately the passenger service has lost about $1 billion a year. Though it just received a congressional appropriation for $900 million, Amtrak says it needs twice that simply to keep its existing service running through the end of 2003.
The question of what to do with Amtrak has defied solution - partly because the states lobby Congress to keep service but are unwilling to increase payments for it. Now the Bush administration has come up with a creative but complicated proposal to keep Amtrak on track. It would:
• Reduce the federal subsidy.
• Eliminate money-losing, long-distance routes unless states pay to continue them, but promote high-speed rail between major cities.
• Make states responsible for forming regional railroads that would hire Amtrak or other private companies to run the trains, with some federal help.
• Break Amtrak's Northeast Corridor operations into three companies - one to run the trains; one to maintain tracks and equipment; and one (a federal-state compact) to lease and improve railroad infrastructure.
The aim is to eliminate unprofitable long-distance routes and force states to increase funding for intercity rail. But many questions remain: How much would the federal government spend to restructure and rebuild the rail system? And with states in their worst fiscal shape in decades, how can they take on huge new costs?
It's clear Amtrak needs restructuring. At some point, states that insist on inefficient rail service must bring more money to the table. But until state budgets improve, Congress should proceed under a yellow light.