The train is leaving the station

Amtrak, our national passenger rail carrier, transports more than 25 million people a year. Moreover, under contracts with local agencies, Amtrak hauls more than 800,000 commuters a day, many moving between Northeastern suburbs and their city jobs.

But Amtrak cannot earn a dime. In fact, passenger railroads – unlike freight carriers – are inherently unprofitable. A few trains might turn a profit, but most do not.

All this is not due to inept management or overstuffed payrolls. The heavy equipment; the fast trains’ wearing out the rails and roadbeds; heating and maintaining the stations; and the employees needed to serve customers _ all drain cash from a passenger railroad.

Nevertheless, President Bush, through the Office of Management and Budget, is trying to cut off Amtrak’s federal funding. If he succeeds, it will be like pulling out Amtrak’s feeding tube. Amtrak will go broke, and in the process Mr. Bush will try to hand the company’s Northeast Corridor over to the states it serves.

This will place an increased burden on these states’ taxpayers, because a change of ownership will not make passenger rail automatically profitable. Long-distance trains in other parts of the country would be operated by a variety of private companies, a scheme that will not work because the freight railroads that own those tracks refuse to let any company other than Amtrak operate on their properties.

For more than 25 years, the Office of Management and Budget has tried to cut off Amtrak’s funding, but each year Congress has kept a small stream trickling in. Now, though, the OMB and the president have been joined by a coterie of doctrinaire congressional conservatives who believe that the government should not subsidize a corporation. They ignore that Amtrak was never created as a classic private-enterprise business; it was founded by Congress to take over passenger-train service that America’s freight railroads had been forced to operate, at gargantuan losses.

Unfortunately, Amtrak’s foes seem unaware that for more than 3,000 years, national governments have been subsidizing transportation. The United States has been doing so since its earliest days, building lighthouses, dredging harbors, and laying out a national highway. Each year the federal government pours billions into subsidies for aviation and roads. Annual highway appropriations total roughly 35 times the $1.2 billion that Congress provided Amtrak for its current fiscal year.

Since 1983, federal subsidies for roads have virtually doubled, and federal expenditures for aviation have nearly tripled. In stark contrast, funding for Amtrak has remained basically flat.

A group of senators, many from the Northeast, tried last month to insert Amtrak funding into the budget bill, but they failed. In the House there is hope that a coalition can prevail, but the outlook seems grim.

Rather than ending Amtrak’s funding, Congress should be increasing it. Last fall, the Intermodal Transportation Institute (of the University of Denver) warned that America faces a transportation crisis – that its highways are congested and its airports overcrowded. The institute added darkly that things will worsen.

Anyone who has ridden on a major road in the East knows the problem all too well. For example, a driver from Providence to Washington must often negotiate at least six traffic jams – in Connecticut, New York’s Westchester County, northern New Jersey, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington.

Moreover, as reserves are depleted, there is little hope that fuel prices will decline. They might ebb and flow, but generally they will probably move upward.

All this requires diverting more people from highways and airliners onto trains. Amtrak’s Virginia-Florida Auto Train – which daily diverts scores of families and their cars from Route 95 – is running at capacity, but with antiquated car carriers. This and other trains cry out for more coaches and sleepers, and additional sections, so that even more people can be lured off the roads and onto the rails.

Indeed, Amtrak is already struggling to meet this challenge, and that is one reason it requires an uninterrupted stream of federal dollars. Amtrak’s president, David Gunn, has embarked on a capital-investment program to refurbish equipment and tracks that suffer from more than 20 years of deferred maintenance. These projects will reduce operating costs, improve service, and protect the public’s safety. They include such crucial projects as renewal of the rail bridges over the Connecticut, Thames and Niantic rivers, in New England, and of the tunnels under Manhattan and the Hudson and East rivers. These long-term projects require multi-year commitments from Congress.

Somehow, practicality and an understanding of government’s historic role in the movement of our people and goods need to resurface in Congress. Laissez faire is a commendable goal, but when anyone tries to transport people by rail, it does not work. Those who cling to doctrine and insist on doing away with Amtrak are missing a crucial point: Our transport crisis transcends state lines, requiring federal intervention, rather than Band-Aids from the states _ as some Amtrak opponents would have it.

The policy they advocate is perilously short-sighted. Even if Congress should cut off money for Amtrak, our growing transport crisis will inevitably force the federal government to resume funding passenger rail. Shutting down Amtrak now will only bring on the crisis of congestion all the sooner, and exacerbate it – thereby forcing taxpayers to spend even more money catching up in future years.

(Rush Loving Jr. is a Baltimore-based writer and consultant and a lecturer at the University of Denver’s Intermodal Transportation Institute. He formerly specialized in transportation at Fortune as an associate editor. His forthcoming book, “The Men Who Loved Trains,” treats the Northeastern railroads.)