Amtrak has spent its first 30 years as a quaint anomaly living on the generosity of a Congress that could never decide whether to starve it or kill it.
Outside the Northeast corridor, it has carried such a fractional sliver of intercity traffic as to be in a class with the horse and buggy as a serious transportation mode. While vast reaches of the country lost rail service entirely in 1971, in others trains ran on infrequent schedules that required them to roar through many towns at ungodly hours when most normal people were fast asleep.
As trains in Europe and Japan set new speed records almost daily, many Amtrak trains crawled along at average speeds slower than schedules of 40 years ago. Five entire states have no rail service at all. Ronald Reagan's administration took the position that Amtrak should simply be allowed to go bankrupt and then be liquidated.
Now the nation seems on the verge of discovering why this fiction of Amtrak's necessity has been maintained for so long in the face of the certainty that it would never generate the sort of revenues justifying its subsidies, which amount to a gift from the federal Treasury to every Amtrak passenger.
If automobiles and planes continue to bear the burden of 95 percent of intercity traffic, an increasing amount of the American landscape will have to be paved over for airports and highways. Much of the interstate highway system will have to be made to resemble the New Jersey Turnpike. Air traffic delays, largely driven by trying to shoehorn more planes into existing airports, set a record in 2000. Driver delays in the nation's largest cities are also up as existing highways reach capacity. Environmental delays involved in building new highways or airports make future projects increasingly uncertain.
In a study offered to support its new capital plan, Amtrak estimates that it would cost $50 million a mile to add a third lane to Interstate Highway 95 in Connecticut and that a lesser investment in rail would yield better results. The plan calls for $1.5 billion annually in capital investment for Amtrak over 20 years. In a federal budget of more than $2 trillion, one in which nearly $40 billion goes to transportation, this is hardly a lavish outlay for the nation's most underutilized and neglected form of transportation.
It is arguable that previous operating subsidies to Amtrak have been money down a rat hole to the extent that they have not diverted a significant number of passengers to rail or increased rail's share of intercity traffic beyond even 2 percent. But they have been cheap compared with the cost of creating a new system from scratch had the shell of an interstate rail system not existed.
There are signs even Congress has succumbed to the idea that paving the nation is no longer an unlimited option for moving people from city to city. The capital spending proposal already has 51 co-sponsors in the Senate. It may be a fraction of what it will take to provide a 21st-century rail passenger system that people will use in large numbers.
But, as a down payment, it's impressive.