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Off the Rails On Amtrak

Our Point of ViewIn a country beset by towering gas prices, toxic air and tens of thousands of highway deaths a year, one might suppose that policymakers would prize a mass-transit alternative to the passenger vehicle. But as this week?s cover story points out, Amtrak once again faces the threat of deep cuts in federal spending?only this year the Bush administration wants to ?zero out? the country?s passenger railroad and leave it with no federal funds at all.
This raises concerns for New Jersey commuters and the state as a whole. Eight of the 10 busiest Amtrak stations are in the Northeast Corridor and three are in New Jersey, more than in any other state. Sharp cuts in Amtrak service would force NJ Transit to add capacity at a time when the agency is already planning an average 11.5% fare hike this summer to help close a $48 million budget gap.
What those eager to end federal support for Amtrak gloss over is that the demand for passenger rail service is hardly a uniform matter. Most business and vacation travelers would rather fly to their destinations than take a long-distance train ride. But for commuters in New Jersey and travelers along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is a convenient and economical mode of transport and frequently the preferred way to go. Yet this popular service is regularly held hostage to political disenchantment with sparsely travelled long-haul routes.
Washington created Amtrak in 1971 to take over the responsibility for passenger traffic from failed private railroads. Few if any passenger rail systems in the world make money. But the administration now wants to hand Amtrak to cash-strapped states that have neither the will nor the wherewithal to operate it. Haven?t we been down this road before?
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