The End of the Line for Amtrak?

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An Amtrak train eastbound for Philadelphia sits at the Pittsburgh station

The news that Amtrak president George Warrington is stepping down to run New Jersey Transit is a serious blow, and it comes at a particularly bad time as the troubled agency tries to make the case for a big increase in federal funding to an increasingly skeptical group of Washington legislators.

Warrington may be getting out just in time. Last October, the Amtrak Reform Council, a federal oversight board, concluded the nation's floundering passenger-train operator has no chance of becoming self-sufficient by the end of 2002, as Congress mandated six years ago. Now that it's clear Amtrak can't go it alone, Congress will have to decide to pony up, or essentially give up on intercity passenger service altogether. The big questions: Does America need Amtrak? And should we expect a national rail system to exist without federal help?

The Bush administration has pledged $521 million to the ailing rail system, but Warrington says at least $1.2 billion is needed in 2003 — without which, he says, the railroad will be forced to suspend most or all of its long-haul routes, the least profitable but, because they run through a lot of states, most politically sensitive components of its service.

If aid continues, the government will have resigned itself to infusing boatloads of cash into the floundering rail system. Amtrak, critics grouse, has proven itself incapable of surviving without federal aid. Warrington counters that Amtrak is expected to perform like a profitable business but to provide services — like those sparsely-ridden long-haul routes — like a non-profit organization. And, he argues, while everyone complains about the money that's been lavished on Amtrak — $22 billion since the agency's inception — no one mentions that the government spent $27.5 billion in 2001 alone to keep our highways moving.

Now making that case is the problem of whoever replaces Warrington. There are already plans afoot to privatize Amtrak, sell off its most popular routes to the highest bidder and let truly private companies do their best to make a profit. There are plenty of potential buyers, especially along the densely populated corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. Privatization of some sort is probably where the future of rail travel lies. "Over time," says John Collura, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, "inter-city rail will evolve into a private service, although it may still receive some public support." Just not as much as Amtrak needs — and that's the critical difference as far as Washington is concerned.