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Uncertain Future Shadows Starlight

Amtrak's renowned overnight train is a big money loser for the deficit-plagued railway, whose fate will be decided by Congress.

November 03, 2002|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Amtrak's Coast Starlight moves north out of Los Angeles, whooshing past scores of San Fernando Valley backyards. This being the start of a day-and-a-half train ride to Seattle, Ken Jacobsen and his young son have adopted a survival mind-set: Dig in and take what the train gives you. Watch the world go by. Don't worry about the food, the service, the fact that wafting through their rail car just now is an awful smell that brings to mind dirty diapers.

"It's an adventure, so you go with it, like riding a wave," says Jacobsen, a Huntington Beach mortgage broker, one of about 20 people in his coach-class car. "There's a psychology at work. Maybe things won't be perfect, but the scenery will be nice.... We'd better just sit back and enjoy the ride."

For Amtrak, the nation's taxpayer-financed passenger rail agency, the ride grows bumpier by the minute. Founded in 1970 with a mandate to break even in three years, the railway has never come close to that goal. For various reasons -- poor management, lack of public investment, competition on freeways and in the air are among those cited -- Amtrak is now more than $4 billion in the red and barely pays its bills.

Last year, an oversight body concluded that the railway should be partly privatized and massively restructured. It said the company should focus mainly on the busy stretch of track between Washington, D.C., and Boston, the only corridor in Amtrak's nationwide network that breaks even on operating costs. This summer, Congress had to bail out Amtrak with an emergency appropriation of $205 million, and the Department of Transportation added a $100-million loan. Now, Washington is once again debating Amtrak's fate.

With Congress wrangling over the federal budget, Amtrak is seeking at least $1.2 billion, which it says is the minimal amount needed to maintain existing service. The Senate wants to give that much; the House and the Bush administration do not. Lawmakers decided this month to put off the matter until after the November election, passing a resolution that will leave Amtrak operational, with federal money trickling in for at least a few more months.

Amtrak President David Gunn, a blunt-talking transit veteran hired in May to turn the agency around, is confident that his rail service will get the $1.2 billion he says it needs. If not, he said, "the practical reality is: We could end up losing the whole thing."

Among the possibilities discussed in Washington: Close down the entire Amtrak network. Or create a company that focuses on rapidly growing short-haul routes, such as that between Los Angeles and San Diego, even if it means abandoning the nation's 14 overnight, long-distance trains -- including the Coast Starlight and three other routes through California.

That scenario is a nightmare for rail fans, who celebrate the history and romance of long-haul journeys. The Coast Starlight, which runs for extended stretches along the Pacific Ocean, is perhaps Amtrak's most renowned overnight train. But the long-distance trains, the Coast Starlight included, are the system's biggest money losers.

Norman Y. Mineta, secretary of transportation and a member of the Amtrak board, asked in a recent interview: If a long-distance train "doesn't make sense from an economic perspective, what is the justification for keeping it in operation?" He added, "Every line is up for grabs."

*

Aboard the Coast Starlight, as it pushes past Santa Barbara, many passengers can be heard discussing Amtrak's fate. There's consensus: The federal government should shell out more, not less, for the nation's rail system.

"Just what is Congress thinking? This is just ridiculous," says Curtis Larsen, a vacationer, like almost everyone else on board. Larsen, a retired minister from rural Wisconsin on his way to San Francisco with his wife and son, ticks off the reasons he thinks Amtrak should get a boost.

The country needs a real rail network, connecting small towns and cities, he says. The country needs trains, because the air industry could be crippled by another terrorist attack. Many people don't want to fly anymore.

Then, echoing another favorite argument of Amtrak supporters, he compares America with Europe.

"It makes no sense," Larsen says. "Even Spain, though it's struggled so much with its economy it was practically Third World a little over a decade ago -- they've got a wonderful system with high-speed rail.

"Our system? It's on life support."

Critics of Amtrak say the rail agency is on life support for good reason. Amtrak, they have long maintained, is poorly organized, out of touch and wasteful.

Long-distance routes like the Coast Starlight are often cited as a prime example of what ails the agency. They hemorrhage money, losing, on average, about $185 per passenger, according to Amtrak statistics.

What's more, the trains are used mostly by tourists, not by people with a pressing need to get from place to place. Transportation for tourists, the critics say, should not be funded by the government.

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