Opinion: Loss of Amtrak Would Damage Nation's Transportation Security

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- For much of its three-decade life, Amtrak has been on the wrong track. Yet the national rail passenger system, including service between Memphis and such cities as New Orleans and Chicago, remains worth saving, according to an editorial by George Rieves in the Commercial Appeal. Rieves of McKenzie, Tenn., is a rail historian and former publicist for the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga.

Amtrak has tried to perpetuate the past era of long-distance rail travel that died in the 1950s, as airlines took away the bulk of this business. Automobiles already had claimed most of the shorter-distance travel between 1925 and 1940, hindered only by the Depression of the 1930s and gasoline rationing during World War II.

Faced with wholesale desertion by the public in the 1960s, the standard American passenger train became obsolete. U.S. government investments that supported the auto and airline industries through tax-funded highway subsidies and airport financing gave a huge competitive advantage to nonrail travel.

The American-style passenger train, with its dining cars, Pullman sleeping cars and other extensive services was in line to join the side-wheel riverboat and the stagecoach in history books.

Yet Amtrak has had its ups as well as its downs. Born in 1971, the system at first inched along, struggling painfully with old equipment and run-down stations.

The skeletal system, however, gained ground throughout the 1970s. Well-received Superliner cars and other new equipment, new or renovated stations, and a modern ticketing system got unexpected boosts from the first Arab oil embargo and a second oil "slowdown."

In the 1980s, Amtrak patronage rose, and improved management and operations improved Amtrak's cost-to-income ratio. The oil scares and turmoil in the Middle East had focused public attention, however briefly, on the weakness of a national transportation system that depended excessively on the availablity of abundant and inexpensive oil.

At the same time, rate wars have boosted air travel substantially because of low, deregulated fares. But the fierce competition helped bank rupt many once-dominant carriers such as Eastern, Braniff and Pan Am.

Amtrak has stumbled along, largely unnoticed by a public that was too willing to overlook the fact that speed and "convenience" of other modes of travel have depended on cheap oil from uninterrupted supply sources. Over and over, we have seen warning lights flash to tell us that our national well-being is at stake because of the unpredictability of our oil sources.

Now airlines are screaming in agony they say can be eased only by massive bailouts from taxpayers. Billions of dollars to prop up mismanaged and unprofitable companies would come on top of billions already invested in high-tech airports and support systems.

The world's oil supply is shrinking as worldwide consumption increases. Resulting scarcity brings higher prices, assuming upheavals in the Arab world do not suddenly reduce or halt our oil supply.

We risk national disaster because of our lack of a balanced transportation system as a defense against oil blackmail. Trains can carry more people per gallon of fuel used than any other mode of transportation on a nationwide scale.

Amtrak is living on borrowed time. It faces a December 2002 deadline to become "profitable" or shut down. It cannot meet that timetable.

It may come to a halt even before the deadline, because of expected cuts in its federal funding. While the airlines rake in billions, there is not enough left for fuel-efficient passenger trains.

Amtrak needs to restructure its trains to serve shorter travel distances, trips of 300 to 400 miles. It needs world-class standards for speed, not the rates it has now. Amtrak needs better tracks and the freedom to shift into new markets. These things would require an additional federal investment of more than $400 million.

Airlines are screaming for, and getting, billions of dollars so they can guzzle fuel and do business as usual, while our transportation system remains vulnerable. A modern Amtrak can help meet our vital needs for basic transportation.

To let it vanish, totally or in large part, this year would rob us of a necessary element of our national security. Time is fast running out for a fuel-efficient transportation system.