THIS IS NEITHER a 'lament, although it could well be that, nor an exercise in nostalgia, which it could also be. The story of the neglect and continuing decline of America's railroads is a subject for outrage. It is also a fable with a moral, and it is the moral I want to demonstrate.

I was sitting at lunch the other day with an English journalist who is visiting America. He was haranguing me over the rockfish about the condition, unreliability and slowness of Amtrak's trains in the Northeast Corridor, from Washington to New York, from New York to Boston, which Congress intended to be not only clean, efficient and fast but even something of a showpiece of what is possible. I hung my head in shame for America, inquired mischieveously if he had ever tried the Long Island Railroad, and then asked him how our trains were doing in Britain.

His eyes brightened: "Better and better." His eyes brightened still more and his voice quickened: "They are one thing which goes on getting better and better." This was not prejudice. I always tell American friends who are about to visit Britain to use the railways, and they return in a month speaking of them with the thrill of delight.

Anyhow, you can cross the English Channel -- if you must -- where the French trains are splendid. I received my first hint of what modern trains can be like -- and how they can meet the challenge of the automobile and the airlines -- when I used to travel by rail between Paris and Marseilles. It was called le Mistral after the cold breeze which sweeps hard along the Mediterranean coast, and like the Mistral it sped -- although not in squalls -- at speeds which even then touched 100 m.p.h. At those speeds it took the curves so steadily that the glass stayed in one's hands.

From Paris to Dijon to Lyons to Marseilles -- four major cities of France -- one was swept in comfort, safely, and on time. Yet what did one read in the papers not so long ago? The French have just finished modernizing (yet again) the stretch which runs from Paris to Lyons, and the trains travel it as smoothly as ever but at speeds now which would otherwise defy one's credulity.

Then one returns to the United States, and journeys to the Midwest, as I recently did for a couple of weeks. One sits in the Wisconsin state capital of Madison, and thinks of all the cities which lie not all that far away, and to which one might want to go as resident or visitor. Even if one stays within the area set by Milwaukee-Minneapolis-St. Paul-Des Moines-Chicago, there is an abundance of inter-city traffic which ought to be carried by rail. And there is no reason why one should not cast the net as far as St. Louis in one direction and Cleveland in another. One is still within distances which in Europe are served by the railways.

But instead one has to go through all the palaver and bother of getting to an airport, checking in before one's seat is given to someone else as a result of overbooking, waiting in the pens to be herded on board, climbing bumpily to the height where one will cruise for 20 minutes before bumpily coming down, and then having to get transport again from the airport at one's destination.

There are still one or two passenger trains -- dirty and unreliable and slow -- which lurch between some of the cities. But in effect one has no alternative to traveling to them except by flying, as inconvenient, uncomfortable, and wasteful a form of inter-city travel as a misantrope could dream up. There are some buses, it is true. But they have none of the advantages or comfort of a good train, they are horrible to ride when the traffic grows heavier round the cities, their schedules are more subject to the weather, and they belch out their fumes where trains leave no trace.

One could make a different, but as powerful, case in America for bringing back the transcontinental trains. It is enough to say here that there is no sadder sight in the whole country than to stroll into the huge railroad station at Cheyenne, which of course used to be one of the great junctions on the journey across the continent, and find it all but deserted, with only two trains listed on the great board in the ticket hall, one Amtrak train a day going west and one Amtrak train a day going east. There can be no justification or sufficient apology for such a spectacle of waste.

One searches for the explanations -- in this land which is made for trains as it was made by them -- and there are many to be offered. But in the end one comes down to one which Americans do not like to face. Here is the moral.

Let us take 16 more or less industrialized nations in four continents: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, France, West Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. In 13 of them all the railways are publicly owned. In Canada and Japan about 75 percent of them are publicly owned. Only in the United States are as small a proportion as 25 percent under any form of public ownership. It is only in America that the railroads are not generally regarded as a responsibility which must today be undertaken by the state.

But there is more to be said than that. In an extensive survey of the public-private frontier in the major free economies of the world a year and a half ago, The Economist of London, which cannot be accused of tenderness to sociallist ideas, wrote that "avowedly free-enterprise societies may go to ludicrous lengths to disguise nationalization (e.g., the United States.) . . . Nationalization is an un-American activity. . . . But, instead of nationalization, Washington uses regulation for not very different purposes." This means in the case of the railways that Americans get the worst of both worlds.

Profitable railways in the United States remain privately owned," The Economist went on. "Lossmakers steam into the public sector." Conrail was set up by the American government four years ago to take over six bankrupt railroads. It cannot operate without government subsidies (like all the nationalized railways of Europe), but the fiction is preserved that it is a "private, for-profit corporation."

"Tripe, of course," snapped The Economist. But it is that tripe which deprives Americans of efficient railroads while still costing them the subsidies. It may be considered seditious in America to say that Conrail is nationalized. But its efforts to make itself more efficient are constantly frustrated by the Interstate Commerce Commission through which regulation takes the place but does not offer the benefits of outright nationalization. The ICC is the final arbiter on routes, services, charges, and may even dictate the distribution of wagons on a train.

The chairman of British Rail just now is Sir Peter Parker, a successful businessman in private enterprise, who happens to have been a friend of mine for many years. I spent some time with him when he was in America two years ago -- he naturally arrived in Washington by train, but he did take the Concorde to fly the Altantic -- and he had much of interest and even surprise to say. For example, he found that his nationalized British Rail had much greater freedom to make its own commercial decisions than the unnationalized Conrail, operating "for profit."

The American ideology of free enterprise simply will not allow Americans -- government, Congress, people -- to acknowledge that free enterprise has failed in running the nation's railroads. This fact was dramatically symbolized in the collapse of Penn Central in 1970. Conrail began operation on, suitably, All Fool's Day in 1976. Since then the railroads have been as neglected and have declined as in the past.

There is no point in griping at Conrail and more immediately at Amtrak. My impression is that they try their darnedest against appalling political odds and in the face of unjustifiably unfair competition. Everyone whistles at the subsidies which the railroads receive. Yet they are as nothing to the subsidies which maintain the airports and support facilities for the airlines and the highways for the trucks and automobiles.

From the end of the Second World War until the collapse of Penn Central, the federal government supported only one program to assist the railroads, and that was only a loan guarantee of less than $250 million. This was the period in which Europe rebuilt its railroads, and in the middle of it the federal and state governments in America were spending $750 million to support the airlines and airports, and the federal government alone contributed a quarter of the $10 billion being spent on highways. The list of contrasts could be lengthened; it only tells the same miserable tale.

The case for restoring and reinvigorating the railroads -- bringing them openly into public ownership and supporting them openly with adequate subsidies -- has never been stronger than it is today. We are talking not of saving something of the past, but of developing one of the ways open to the future.

They are an efficient form of mass transit, using less of our precious fuel than automobiles. They do not pollute. Their roadbeds are for the most part still there, waiting only to be restored and modernized and used. They could provide the cheapest form of taxpayers' subsidies for their own transport which at present can be devised.

They can offer leisure and repose as one travels, comfort and enjoyment, as no airline or automobile can provide. They can offer good food and wine, as many European trains do, and the time and comfort to consume them. They can even offer luxury.

Next spring the Orient Express will begin to cross Europe again. This legendary train of romance and adventure is to be privately owned. (What nationalized corporation in these days dares to make money off providing luxury?) Its 18 carriages are being sumptuously restored and strengthened to meet the safety standards of today. It will be drawn by the most modern locomotive which the nationalized French railways can offer. It will take one from London to Venice in one day's luxurious journey at a cost of $500 one way.

And it will be -- how can it fail to be? -- full. (It is planned to carry 170 passengers.) But it is not for this kind of opulence that one is asking, although the very idea of it helps to charge the imagination. It is surely one of the safest bets one can make that transcontinental trains of great comfort and reasonable luxury could become one of the new and changing habits of Americans.

For the down-to-earth daily labor of intercity travel, and for the high enjoyment of being pulled majestically across this fabulous continental land, there is no rival and there never will be to the train. (Unless it is a barge.) America needs to reimagine its railroads in a hundred small and expansive ways, but it will not begin to do this until it abandons an ideology which is inapplicable to them.

Now -- in an election year, when there will be so much talk of energy and conservation -- will anyone say that? Want to bet?