Congress created Amtrak in 1971 to save a dying industry. Americans had abandoned rail travel for highway cruising in mattress-ride automobiles. Then came cheap jet travel for the masses. Amtrak begged annually for federal subsidies, and in recent years, has fought efforts to dismantle it. Now, thankfully, the outlook for rail is brightening.
Congested highways and airports, high gas prices and environmental concerns, and improved Amtrak services have all worked to bring about a train renaissance. Ridership has increased for five straight years, and more people now take the train than fly between Washington D.C. and New York.
Customer satisfaction is up, revenues from ticket sales are up, and ridership on the nation's first high-speed train – the Acela, which serves the Boston-Washington corridor – is way up (20 percent over last year).
All of this has impressed lawmakers, or at least US senators, who last week easily passed a bill that significantly increases Amtrak funding and accountability. It deserves support from both the House and the president, who has been no great friend of the rail service.
Resistance stems from the fact that Amtrak has never made a profit, despite a requirement that the service be self-sufficient (cover the cost of operations) by 2003. It hasn't been able to meet that target.
The Senate bill addresses this issue with greater realism. It repeals the self-sufficiency requirement (Japanese and European trains also rely on subsidies). Instead it sets a goal to improve Amtrak's budgetary efficiency by 40 percent over six years through cost cutting and increased ridership and revenues.
Behind this change is a growing recognition that the rails, like the roads, are part of the national transportation system, and therefore deserve government assistance. They're also more energy efficient than planes (which use 20 percent more energy per passenger), and cars (which use 27 percent more).
"Providing transportation infrastructure is a basic function of government," wrote one of the bill's cosponsors, Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi, last week. "The federal government has never built roads, runways or ports to make a profit, but to serve commerce...."
The Senate bill's $10 billion package over six years would amount to an almost 40 percent increase in funding. It applies to operational expenses, maintenance, and infrastructure. The bill also addresses delays on long distance routes.
An additional $1.4 billion would be available as matching grants to states seeking more passenger train service within their borders.
It must be said, however, that even the Senate bill falls short – of funds (overdue upgrades to bridges and tunnels along the Northeast corridor alone will cost $5 billion), and more important, of strategic vision. Must America really be satisfied with just one high-speed rail service? Investment in the Acela and improved on-time performance tapped latent demand that surely exists elsewhere in the country.
The vision challenge extends across transportation sectors. Amtrak is finally getting a serious cash infusion, but its needs are no different from those of America's bridges, highways, and airports.
The country is at a point of reckoning on transit infrastructure.