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IF AMTRAK IS TO FLOURISH, IT NEEDS TO BE REPACKAGED

It's time for the United States to stop Amtrak's annual agony of budget deficits and the amputation of one or two long-distance trains with low ridership.

We should recognize that the United States has no substantial public stake in long-haul passenger trains. Instead, let's focus public attention and financing on the places where trains fill an important niche in the transportation spectrum and find a better way to finance and operate recreational trains.

The only compelling case to be made for public financing and possible subsidy of rail service, it seems to me, is in high-speed, short-haul train service. In dense urban areas, fast intercity trains can significantly reduce the demands that would otherwise be placed on highways and airports.

In those cases, money spent on track improvements and train operations may well buy more transportation capacity than the same amount of public money spent on airports or highways.

Amtrak should concentrate its efforts and funds on developing such routes and on train technology to improve speed and reliability. And because short-haul services are essentially regional, regional financing may be more appropriate than national.

But long-haul trains that run once a day or less and average around 40 mph? Forget them. Use of the classical economic arguments about "transportation linkages" to justify continued long-haul Amtrak service is a joke.

If you believe there's a public need for subsidized transportation to small communities, buses can provide that service at a fraction of the cost of trains.

This doesn't mean we should abandon long-haul trains, however. Let's recognize that long-haul trains are really sightseeing excursions and land cruises and that there's a demand for both.

The best way I know to satisfy that demand without public subsidy -- and without mixing politics into route and schedule decisions -- is to turn the operation of those trains over to people who know something about that business. That means cruise lines, sightseeing operators and tour companies.

Slow speed -- the bane of Amtrak's long-haul trains -- really doesn't matter to a land cruise. What's most important is to schedule the trips for daylight runs through the most scenic areas. It's also important to market such trips as tours, with fly-one-way, train-the-other, destination-stay and other attractive packages.

Private operators might well develop another rail market, too: overnight "hotel trains" running between cities that are 200 to 400 miles apart. When I was in elementary school, I well remember my father's business trips on overnight sleepers from our hometown of Chicago to Louisville, Omaha, St. Louis and other Midwestern cities.

Given the cost of a room in a business hotel these days, I suspect that such overnight sleeper trains might well find a good market. The only major innovation required for today's travelers would be shower facilities -- either on the trains or in the major stations. Who could design, run and market such trains most successfully? Obviously, the big hotel companies.

As with land cruises, speed isn't important to a hotel train, at least at the shorter end of the distance range. All that really matters is that the train leave after the end of the usual business day and arrive the next morning in time for another full business day. Average speeds under 35 mph would be perfectly adequate for many such runs.

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