The passengers have come, but where's the funding?
It took the shutdown of the nation's airline system after the September 11 terrorist attacks for a lot of Americans to finally appreciate Amtrak. The perennially underfunded train system pressed extra cars into service and honored airline tickets as its long-distance ridership swelled 35 percent. Barely missing a beat, Amtrak's new high-speed Acela Express trains rolled into Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, depositing travelers even closer to their downtown destinations than temporarily shuttered Ronald Reagan National Airport ever could.
But behind the headlines is the fact that Amtrak had seen increased ridership even before the attacks, as passengers grew tired of airport congestion and frequent flight delays, or found that once-peaceful long-distance drives had become bumper-to-bumper headaches. Travelers in the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland corridor have taken to their newly improved Intercity trains, Florida voters gave the go-ahead for a high-speed system between St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Orlando, and support for high-speed train service connecting urban areas in California, Texas, and the Midwest has been growing. These new trains could clear the air as well as congestion: Intercity trains are 45 percent more energy-efficient than domestic airline service.
What hasn't followed the trend is funding. Supported barely and begrudgingly since its inception 30 years ago, Amtrak can only dream of a dedicated trust fund like those that Congress uses to pay for highway and aviation infrastructure. During Amtrak's lifetime, the federal government has funneled almost 70 times more money into highways and aviation than into trains.
In an America once consumed with stock portfolios and dot-coms, the impulse was to let Amtrak cut and pare until only rudimentary train service remained. But in a country drawn together after September 11, people are less inclined to wince at the concept of the "greater good," and railways might benefit. Amtrak's "greatest missing ingredient is a realistic acknowledgment that it cannot be both a public service and a profit-making operation," the New York Times wrote in a September editorial.
This summer, legislators were considering a bill that earmarked $12 billion for Amtrak. In late September, Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced legislation that would provide $71 billion in bonds, loans, and loan guarantees for states to develop high-speed rail networks. In mid-October, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved a measure that could provide nearly $2 billion in emergency relief to Amtrak. That's less than the $3.2 billion Amtrak requested--and has followed a rockier path than the $15 billion airline bailout that sailed through Congress--but it's a sign that America's train system could be emerging from a long, dark tunnel. --R.M.