Air Transport World

A long-sleeping giant is stirring. (U.S. rail service is gaining support)

When the Japanese were starting operations with their high-speed Shinkansen Tokaido Line Bullet Train over 321 mi. of new dedicated trackage between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964, U.S. railroads were putting the final touches on the dismantling of their rail-passenger system. Service continued to decline until finally in 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corp. (Amtrak) was formed and all but a few privately owned passenger services vanished.

Largely because of the long distances between major cities except in the Northeast, plus development of superior highway and air systems, there was little regret, except for a few thousand rail buffs.

In the U.S., passenger rail service now has been something of a tragedy for more than two decades. But the problems of airport and airways congestion, plus the growing difficulties of road travel, are causing entrepreneurs, local and state governments, foreign investors and even the federal government to view railroads in a different light. There are signs that a long-sleeping giant is stirring. Programs involving new dedicated high-speed rail systems like those in Europe and Japan, and the existing rail network are growing in several parts of the country.

"Mobile money-burning machine"

Currently, U.S. intercity passenger rail service-high speed or any other speed, for that matter-is provided by the government-subsidized Amtrak, which will celebrate its 20th birthday on Oct. 30. It has never been in better shape. Nor has it faced a more interesting future. Until recently, Amtrak has been the butt of jokes and even has been scorned by presidents, especially Ronald Reagan, whose administration referred to it as the "mobile money-burning machine" and repeatedly sought to cut off government funding. The Bush administration has been a little more polite but as yet, has not been a booster. As one Amtrak official put it: "This year's White House budget proposal was a kinder, gentler zero." Fortunately for Amtrak, Congress has been more friendly and funding has been provided each year to continue the service.

Amtrak still runs in the red but its results for the most recent fiscal year, which ended last Sept. 30, were very encouraging. Amtrak produced $1.269 billion in operating revenue, nearly 14% more than the previous year, and cut its operating loss to $665 million. Five years ago, the revenue was only $825.8 million and the loss was $774 million. That's a 53.6% increase in revenue and a 14% reduction in operating loss over the period. It has cut its annual government subsidy from $679.7 million in 1986 to $553.8 million last year.

Much of the credit for the improvement is bestowed upon Amtrak's energetic and wily 78-year-old president and chairman, W. Graham Claytor, who has set a goal of a subsidy-free Amtrak by the year 2000. The feat of shaking off subsidies never has been done by a state-owned major railway, he says.

Claytor brought solid railroad management experience to Amtrak when he took over in 1982, having been president of Southern Railway, one of the most successful lines in the nation before being bought out by the Norfolk & Western, now the Norfolk Southern. …

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