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Amtrak: America's Train
by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace

Once again, Amtrak is on the brink, requiring a big cash infusion to stay in operation. We asked our Savvy Traveler, Rudy Maxa, to tell us why that, unlike other countries, the United States can't seem to field fast trains that run on time.

The problem is we're too big of a country to have the kind of train system Amtrak is currently designed to be. Before airplanes, when trains were "state of the art," it made sense to construct a nationwide train system. Today, long-haul routes are mostly nostalgic trains for vacationers and political plums that politicians promise small and medium-sized towns.

Think of the places where trains are fast and efficient, like Japan and Europe. They involve smaller countries with major population centers. And that's the key to having a viable train network: linking big cities with fast, reliable trains. Build them, and they will come, as evidenced by the success of Amtrak's sort-of-high-speed Acela service that now links DC, New York and Boston. That train has the US Airways and Delta shuttles serving those cities on the ropes. If Amtrak ever gets the money to lay down better track, train travel between those towns will get even faster.

The CEO of Meridien hotels, Jurgen Bartels, recently pointed to other places in the U.S. where trains make sense: between major cities in Florida and big cities in California; between Houston and Dallas; and places where there's a high concentration of people who want to get from center city to center city quickly, without doing the airport shuffle.

Congress and the American public must begin looking at Amtrak as a kind of airline that deserves more public financing for part of its existence. Amtrak's latest request for $200 million in emergency funding would hardly build a couple of runways at an airport. And, indeed, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars build runways and other infrastructure for airports. Yet, you hear little griping about how airports "lose money." But Amtrak is painted as a loser because it's required so many "bail outs" by Uncle Sam. Nonsense. Greyhound is indirectly subsidized by the construction and maintenance of interstate highways. Sure, the airlines pay user fees to land and take off at airports, but it's taxpayers who pay for other necessities, like air traffic controllers. And who stepped in with hundreds of millions of dollars for the airlines after Sept. 11, as well as with loan guarantees right now? That's right -- the taxpayers.

Europe's "crack" trains, like the Eurostar and TGV, don't make a profit. But they get people from point A to B in comfort, efficiently. We should ask that of Amtrak, but we can't expect it while also demanding that the train company serve everyone and make a profit, too.

Now, it's time for political interests to stop insisting that Amtrak service their hometowns. And, it's time for Amtrak to cut its bureaucracy and focus on linking major urban centers with good track, good trains, good schedules and good service -- helped along by public funds, the way the rest of the world does it.

From The Savvy Traveler, I'm Rudy Maxa for Marketplace.

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