The United States soon could lose its national passenger rail system.
Amtrak has been in financial trouble almost since it was founded in 1971, but this time, the rail system, which carries 20 million passengers to 510 cities in 44 states every year, faces a crisis.
Amtrak executives expect to run out of money in less than a year.
“We’ll continue to borrow money until the line of credit runs out and we go bankrupt,” said Tim Gillespie, Amtrak vice president for government affairs.
The ultimate fate of the service could be decided in a matter of months or even weeks as Congress weighs Amtrak’s place in a new five-year national transportation plan.
President Clinton has proposed rescuing the national rail system by diverting $4.8 billion over the next five years from the federal Highway Trust Fund, but many members of Congress favor using that money to build highways.
Rep. Bud Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has been cooking up a compromise to pump more money into highways while setting aside a little to help Amtrak.
But Shuster fell two votes short in an effort to divert an additional $12 billion to highways in a House budget vote last week, and that failure makes a successful alliance between Amtrak’s supporters and highway builders less likely.
Some critics say the government ought to walk away and let the failing rail system die. Amtrak is an expensive anachronism in an era of cars and air transportation, they say. Subsidies are as high as $500 per passenger on some routes.
“It would be cheaper for the American taxpayer if we just bought Amtrak passengers airline tickets,” said Steven Moore of the Cato Institute, a libertarian research group headquartered in Washington.
But rail advocates argue that Amtrak makes economic sense in dense urban corridors - particularly in the crowded Northeast - and modest government subsidies are a logical alternative to 12-lane interstate highway extensions.
Train travel has been declining steadily since 1944. The last year when Americans chose trains over planes was 1956, when rails recorded 28.2 billion passenger-miles, while airlines netted 23.2 billion.
In 1994, the most recent year for which such statistics are available, airline travel in the United States totalled 388.4 billion passenger-miles compared with a paltry 13.4 billion for the trains.
Amtrak was responsible for only 5.2 billion passenger-miles, less than 4 percent of commercial travel nationwide.
Everyone else drove cars - a breathtaking 2,537 billion passenger-miles - choosing their own routes and listening to their own radio stations along the way.
Trains actually run more slowly today than during World War II. The Broadway Limited train from Chicago to New York took 16 hours in 1940 but now keeps you aboard for 20.5 hours.