- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

It was not a good sign when the California Zephyr, one of Amtrak's most celebrated trains, arrived in Denver more than an hour late on its westward trip from Chicago to California.

Worse, the dome car was missing. Visitors from all over the world book seats on the Zephyr for the intimate view of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains that the dome car normally provides as it passes through scenic deep canyons. But the dome car had been commandeered to replace equipment missing from another train the result of a chronic shortage of passenger cars so hundreds of tourists, families and business travelers aboard the Zephyr were disappointed.

Tempers flared over the next day and a half as the train crawled through the mountains. The streamliner was often delayed as dispatchers at the Union Pacific railroad's operations center in the far-off Midwest sent more than 20 "go slow" orders for the Zephyr.

Time after time, the train was held back for railroad construction or diverted onto sidings to allow the passage of freight trains with a higher priority higher in the railroad's view. Over much of its coast-to-coast system, Amtrak does not own the rails but merely rents time on the tracks. By the time it reached California, the Zephyr was more than three hours late.

Railroaders say the trip is typical of the problems facing Amtrak as the system moves toward decisions that could make or break the U.S. rail passenger network. Some believe that Amtrak in its present form is nearing the end of the track, while others maintain the system is heading for a rebirth that could make it modern and efficient like the sleek trains of Europe and Japan.

Amtrak's future is "hanging in the balance," says Eugene K. Skoropowski, managing director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which operates trains in California with Amtrak and the Union Pacific. "This," he adds, "is the time for congressional action, not inaction."

Already, Amtrak is preparing for the worst if Congress appropriates less than the $1.2 billion requested for the fiscal year 2003 starting Oct. 1. That is the amount the passenger system says is a minimum necessary to maintain present services and help provide for long-needed repairs and modernization. The current Amtrak appropriation from Congress is $521 million, not enough for work including the repair of dozens of damaged and desperately needed passenger cars quietly rusting in an Indiana rail yard.

Under the Amtrak Reform Act of 1997, Amtrak must operate without federal tax support after Dec. 1 of this year, and it does not have enough private financing to do that. About 1,000 of its 25,000 employees have been laid off, and plans are in the works to cut at least part of its long-distance service across the country if the money in a bill sponsored by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, is disapproved.

In effect, long-distance service could disappear in many areas Oct.1. For the most part, only regional routes such as the Northeast corridor between Washington and New York and Boston would be left.

The real issue, says Kenneth Mead, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is whether enough money will be provided to solve Amtrak's shortfall of capital funds for work on equipment overhauls, new technology and station improvement.

"There is no future for Amtrak in the Northeast corridor or anywhere else if we don't deal with the capital issue."

One of the main problems for Amtrak is that some officials have been telling the public and Congress since the system was formed in 1970 that the passenger network could be made profitable. Prior to 1970, passenger trains were operated by the nation's privately owned railroads such as the New York Central and Southern Pacific. As the airlines grew after World War II, rail-passenger traffic declined, and many railroads wanted out of the passenger business altogether.

Amtrak was formed as a compromise: to let most railroads concentrate on freight traffic, which was profitable, and to leave most passenger operations to the government-run system, which wasn't profitable but which officials pretended might be in the future. In fiscal year 2001, Amtrak carried a record 23.5 million passengers who paid $1.2 billion for tickets. That still required federal funding of $521 million to make up the difference for total costs.

Some parts of the system such as the highly urbanized Northeast corridor, the Chicago area and California remained competitive with the airlines and have even increased ridership as airports became more crowded.

Tens of thousands of other Americans, in such smaller cities as Creston, Iowa, and Lewistown, Pa., which have no scheduled airline service, rely heavily on Amtrak for long-distance transportation, and some states provide substantial funding for such services.

Amtrak has even been able to introduce a few sleek trains such as the Acela Express in the Northeast to show what it is capable of doing given half a chance.

A big change occurred after September 11 when four airliners were hijacked by terrorists and three crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

Notes Mr. Hollings, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee: "The atrocious events of September 11, 2001, and the aftermath which followed exposed the vulnerability of our society and our economy when transportation choices are limited and our mobility is diminished. [W]e were forced to adjust to a transportation system that was without access to aviation. We need to have a more balanced system of transportation for passengers in this country."

The Hollings bill would help finance such efforts as development of high-speed corridors, improved security and track improvements as well as maintaining present countrywide services. Mr. Hollings says it is just as proper for the government to maintain and improve the passenger-rail system as it is for taxpayers to pay billions for federal support of the air-transport system. The bill was approved by the committee on April 18 and may be considered by the full Senate in May.

Yet there still are hurdles. An advisory group, the Amtrak Reform Council, has called for selling off the Amtrak system to private buyers, who would try to operate at least portions of the network for profit.So far, there has been little reaction to the plan in Washington, although Sen. John McCain of Arizona, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee, introduced a bill to help make such a sale possible.

Says Mr. McCain: "While it might seem easier to simply throw more money at Amtrak instead of making tough policy decisions, we would be failing in our congressional responsibilities."

Rep. Don Young, Alaska Re[ublican and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, criticizes Amtrak as a "dysfunctional organization." He says that major changes "need to be made today,and Amtrak's management is simply unwilling or unable to do the job correctly."

Others hold that even the $1.2 billion in the Hollings bill is not enough to repair and revamp the system fully.

"At least $2 billion a year is necessary to build a first-class national rail passenger system," says Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. "That would include the gradual working off of a backlog of overhead such as electric wires for power on some lines and new equipment."

Other countries long have operated with no delusions about making railroad passenger traffic profitable. Germany and France spend $4 billion a year on rail passenger service and Japan spends $3 billion.

Amtrak President George D. Warrington says that "a national passenger rail network in the United States will never be profitable on a classic commercial basis. No one should be surprised by any of this, as every other passenger rail mode and every other passenger rail system in the world relies substantially on public funding."

The time is rapidly approaching when Congress will have to decide whether it wants to provide what is really needed by the national passenger rail system or let it die.

Bill MacDougall is a Washington writer formerly on the staffs of U.S. News & World Report and The Washington Star.

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