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 president. 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 year. 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 fly? 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 day. 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 them. 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 accordingly. The writer is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak.