George Will

WASHINGTON--David Gunn, 65 and a glutton for punishment, left retirement to run Amtrak. His office is in magnificently restored Union Station, a relic of something Gunn knows is gone forever--the era of glamorous railroading. He explains his challenge by taking a visitor on a walk back to the 1930s.

He walks to the end of Union Station's passenger platform, looking north up the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. Almost everything that strikes the eye, Gunn says, from the transformers to the poles holding overhead electric power wires, was here in the 1930s, if not 1910. The foundations of more than 9,800 poles in the corridor are, Gunn says, ``in trouble."

Deferred maintenance cannot forever be deferred for this railroad that two years ago mortgaged part of Penn Station in Manhattan to meet $300 million in expenses. Gunn's predecessor then said he was ``absolutely confident" that Amtrak would reach ``operational self-sufficiency by the congressionally mandated deadline in 2003."

``Fanciful" is Gunn's dismissal of the idea that Amtrak can end its deficit. Fanciful, too, is the idea that the government will quit subsidizing Amtrak operations in the Northeast Corridor. Without subsidies, those operations would end for 1.1 million passengers a month, who would be put into the corridor's already congested highways and air space.

Furthermore, it is fanciful to think Congress will subsidize the Northeast Corridor without legislative logrolling to guarantee continuing subsidies of long-distance trains (routes of at least 500 miles) beyond the corridor, where five-sixths of Americans live. Trains like the Sunset Limited, which is not crowded on its runs from Orlando to Los Angeles via New Orleans. Or the Texas Eagle, according to the Wall Street Journal, which lost $38.4 million in 2001 ($1.70 for every $1 of revenue) on its 33-hour runs--it meanderings, actually; it averages 39 miles per hour--between Chicago and San Antonio.

Amtrak accounts for only three-tenths of 1 percent of intercity travel. Do at least Amtrak's Northeast Corridor operations make money? There are two answers: Don't be daft. And: Yes, if you disregard sufficient expenses. The same is true of the 12 daily trains that carry 200,000 passengers a month--up 25 percent over last year--in the San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara corridor. But by performing valuable services in congested regions, these services may help force the government to quit pretending that self-sufficiency is just over the horizon, and to decide what kind of intercity rail service it wants to pay for.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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