Derailing the future

For 40 years Amtrak, the country's national passenger rail service, has chugged along like "The Little Engine That Could" — overcoming constant economic obstacles and a continuing barrage of political maneuvering.

It seems no matter the progress it makes in extending service and adding riders, there is always a herd of politicians in Washington who try to derail it at budget time.

This year is no different.

A proposal in the U.S. House would cut Amtrak's operations appropriations by 60 percent, from $563 million each of the past two years to $227 million in 2012. Its capital budget would be reduced by $25 million to $899 million, a significant blow considering that the corporation is already underfunded for maintenance and infrastructure.

That legislation would also prohibit the use of federal funds on short lines, effectively eliminating 150 weekday trains such as the Heartland Flyer, which operates between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. If that much service is lost, affecting 9 million passenger trips a year, it would basically kill a national passenger rail system.

Of course, that's what some in Congress want.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has long advocated privatizing major parts of Amtrak, like the highly used northeast corridor, and letting the states pay for those short-haul routes if they want to keep the service. Texas and Oklahoma each contribute $2 million annually to the operating cost of the Heartland Flyer.

Ironically, this latest call for reduced funding comes as Amtrak is enjoying its sixth year of record ridership, due in part to better on-time records and improvement in service. During the 11 months that ended Aug. 31, the Texas Eagle (operating daily between Chicago and San Antonio) increased ridership in Fort Worth by 3.8 percent with a total of 277,188 riders. The Heartland Flyer had 78,036 riders for the same period, an increase of 2 percent.

Because much of Amtrak's 21,000 miles of track is owned by freight railroads, it will continue to have on-time issues. More money is needed for double-tracking, such as the $4 million in federal Recovery Act dollars granted last year to add separate tracking to parts of the Trinity Railway Express commuter line between Fort Worth and Dallas. That will prevent trains from having to wait on each other.

There will always be debates in this country about how much any service should be subsidized by the federal government. In tough economic times, those political battles tend to be more fierce.

Amtrak officials, and those who support the national system, are accustomed to fighting for every federal dollar awarded. They stand ready to defend the need for a quality, economical and convenient rail system that provides an alternative to automobiles and airplanes.

Since 1971, the system has grown to 500 destinations in 46 states. In fiscal 2010 Amtrak, which partners with 15 states and four commuter rail agencies, carried 28.7 million passengers on 300 daily trains.

This system needs to grow rather than be diminished because of Congress' shortsightedness. Members of the Senate should make sure that adequate funding continues.

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