In its 34-year history, the National Rail Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, never has been self-sustaining. But it should continue to be subsidized, and encouraged to grow, even with the unfortunate brake problem that's currently halted its high-speed Acela trains.
Amtrak sells 25 million tickets a year - that's 25 million fewer people driving or flying. In fact, Amtrak increased its ridership 4.3 percent last year. And it provides infrastructure and operating assistance to non-Amtrak rail lines that haul some 850,000 commuters each day.
Congress created Amtrak in 1970 to take over passenger-train service that freight railroads were operating at big losses. Amtrak has lost an average of $500 million a year for the past decade. While Congress typically debates whether to keep funding Amtrak, it has always done so. This year, it's weighing a $2 billion annual subsidy for the next three years.
The Bush administration, however, proposes to cut all funding for Amtrak, which would force it into bankruptcy, and calls for turning Amtrak's infrastructure over to the states. Private companies would then bid for Amtrak-run routes. The result: a patchwork instead of a seamless, nationwide rail system.
Giving principal ownership to the states doesn't guarantee profitability. Nor does privatization of a national train service that could, if properly developed, alleviate the country's enormous, and growing, transportation challenges. What Congress needs to do is develop a strategy to reorganize Amtrak for the sake of strengthening it. Amtrak, and fledgling regional rail efforts around the country, can offer car users an effective alternative to crowded roads and high gasoline costs.
Subsidized public transportation has been a federal responsibility for a very long time. The annual highway appropriation far exceeds the average Amtrak annual subsidy. In 2001, 41 percent of highway monies came from payments other than taxes, tolls, or fees. And Congress has been willing to bail out the airlines in troubled times - $13 billion in aviation spending for 2002. All Amtrak's asking for this year is $1.2 billion. Even the Army Corps of Engineers is slated to get $3 billion to maintain waterways.
Passenger trains still provide a necessary transportation alternative, especially if oil prices keep going up. Bringing Amtrak to self-sustaining profitability may take a long time, but it should be given the support it needs to keep on chugging.