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Don't Stop Those Trains

 By Thomas M. Downs

 Sunday, August 17, 1997; Page C07
 The Washington Post

 Congress has earmarked a $2.3 billion capital fund for Amtrak,
 the nation's passenger rail system. Unfortunately, that fund
 cannot be used without an authorization bill acceptable to the

 The desperately needed funds, overwhelmingly supported by
 Congress, would not only bring Amtrak back from the brink of
 bankruptcy but would also ensure a future of modernized
 trains, high-speed rail and revitalized train stations. Without the
 fund, Amtrak operations will be totally dissolved in less than a

 For the past 26 years, Amtrak has run the bands of steel that
 carry 55 million people each year from their homes to jobs, to
 families and to their vacations. It is a safe and reliable form of
 transportation that we largely take for granted. And for many
 rural cities and towns that are not served by airlines, it is the
 only way to go.

 Now imagine America without passenger rail service. If we lost
 Amtrak, great train stations would turn into empty halls.
 Highway congestion would increase dramatically, as well as the
 risk of automobile accidents. The tourism industry would suffer.
 And what about the 31 million Americans who simply refuse to

 Just in the northeast corridor alone, without Amtrak, 7,500
 fully booked 757s would have to fly to already overcrowded
 airports, and another 27,000 cars would need to travel on 20
 additional highway lanes between New York and Boston each

 If we lost Amtrak service, we'd be isolating hundreds of
 thousands of rural residents where rail is the only means of
 getting from place to place. For rural America, Amtrak is
 literally the last affordable transportation alternative available to

 Ironically, Amtrak's current financial crisis is not a result of
 poor service or lack of consumer demand. It is the result of a
 15-year shortfall in federal capital investment. In fact, over the
 years, Amtrak has built a strong record for running a very tight
 and efficient business, recovering more of its operating costs
 than any other passenger rail in the world -- and that includes
 rail services in Germany, France and Japan.

 But a railroad is a capital consumption machine, like every
 other mode of transportation -- like aviation, like highways and
 shipping. Each year, the federal government pours billions into
 airports, roads, bridges and shipping channels, but little or
 nothing into rail. For example, last year, spending for highways
 exceeded $20 billion, while capital investment for Amtrak was
 less than $450 million. Amtrak receives less than 2 percent of
 all federal transportation spending.

 But this year, Congress has recognized the importance of
 passenger rail to the transportation needs of this country and
 has commended Amtrak for its efforts to wean itself from its
 dependence on federal operational grants. Over the past three
 years, we've reduced those grants dramatically, and we are on
 a path to be independent of them by the year 2002. To
 accomplish that, the board of directors has had to make tough
 decisions. We've cut expenditures, restructured the company
 and improved our bottom line by more than $300 million. But
 Congress also saw that as we reduce operating support, there
 had to be a way to meet the huge capital needs. We have to
 modernize and grow. That is why there was a such strong
 endorsement of a $2.3 billion capital fund for Amtrak.

 Rail is not dead. It is very much alive, and its importance is
 growing. It is essential to America's ability to keep moving. It
 hasn't been easy for any of us, but we're not complaining. The
 bottom line is that we have made it work and we have proved
 that capital funding for Amtrak is a wise investment for the
 country to make.

 But don't just take my word for it. Ride with us on the City of
 New Orleans, the Empire Builder, or the Crescent and talk to
 the passengers who board at each stop. They are seniors,
 college students and families. They are schoolchildren on their
 way to Washington for a field trip. They are young parents with
 children on vacation to see the countryside. These Americans
 need and deserve a national rail passenger system. We know
 it. The president and Congress know it. They must act

 The writer is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak.