Train travel already has shown itself to be reliable and environmentally friendly. Yet Congress is paying little attention to this necessary component of America's transportation future. And at $900 million, the latest budget proposed by the Bush administration isn't giving Amtrak the money it needs, even though the company is showing signs of a turnaround.
In fact, Amtrak's new president of the past 22 months, David Gunn, should be commended for his management of Amtrak. Last year, for the first time since 1995, Amtrak didn't have to borrow money to meet its payroll. Ridership on Amtrak hit an all-time high in fiscal year 2003 - 24 million; 25 million are predicted to climb aboard this year. Mr. Gunn also cut 3,000 Amtrak jobs and got rid of unprofitable freight and mail services.
Amtrak wants funding increased to $1.8 billion, double the Bush budget. Mr. Gunn would spend almost half of that amount on infrastructure - replacing worn tracks, overhauling cars and equipment, and repairing bridges. If the debate plays out as in prior years, Amtrak probably will wind up with $1.2 billion. That's enough to keep its trains moving, but not enough to return the railroad to a state of good repair after years of deferred maintenance in an attempt to break even.
Those members of Congress philosophically opposed to subsidizing Amtrak ought to realize that the railroad must be weaned, not cut off from the federal dole. There's no reason why subsidy programs can't be developed with an eye to eventual self-sufficiency, or at least more efficiency.
Amtrak should focus on developing more high-speed corridors, such as the one between Boston, New York, and Washington serviced by its Acela trains, which have proven viability.
The need remains for Congress and the administration to develop a national rail policy, especially with frustrated car commuters forced to deal with increasing traffic jams. For now, everyone can cheer the news that Amtrak has begun to show its ability to stay on the straight and narrow.