IT CAME AS no surprise that in his budget released last week President Reagan made good on his favorite campaign promise which overshadowed all the other issues of the election -- to dump Amtrak. As we all painfully recall it was the hypersensitive Amtrak question which wouldn't go away in debate after debate as the nation became embroiled in what will forever be known as Traingate.
We can still hear Jesse Jackson's rhetoric: "Save the train and ease the pain; go to jail to save the rail." And who can forget that emotional night in Dallas last summer when Reagan wowed the cheering Republicans with the line, "If God wanted us to ride on trains he never would have invented the limousine." Historians will note how the flames of Amtrak hatred spread across the country during the election year -- how the Reagan campaign committee had staged a photo opportunity of a beagle making no-no on the tracks at Grand Central Station.
Political observers knew that Amtrak's days were numbered the moment President Reagan made the cutting off of the national railway subsidies the dominant theme of his entire campaign. It was inevitable that the president's personal magnetism would create a prejudice against trains among his fans. "Get the cabooses off our backs" became the war cry of a deficit-conscious America. In one incident, a jazz orchestra was pelted with rotten fruit for playing Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train." "Chattanooga Choo- Choo" was banned in 23 states.
The Democrats dealt with the Amtrak issue in the same manner as they dealt with the other issues -- defensively, haphazardly and pathetically. We remember a desperate Gary Hart posing in blue striped overalls and a trainman's cap shoveling coal into an electric engine. It was one of his new ides. And the night that Sen. Ernest Hollings (D- S.C.) held an impromptu press conference in New Hampshire and stood on top and a freight car at the Manchester depot waving a red lantern singing "I've Been Working on the Railroad," his own camera crew turned away in embarrassment.
There were other Democratic pro-Amtrak theatrics including the now famous Whistle-Stop Tour, whose sloppy scheduling sent the train rolling through three Canadian provinces. This prompted the always ebullient Walter Mondale to exclaim, "We're gonna carry Saskatchewan!"
No one was without an opinion. Not one kid on a school playground would admit that he had ever received an electric train for Christmas. No male born in the United States after 1981 was named "Lionel."
What turned this once-great symbol of America's heartland into a pariah and what did Ronald Reagan have against the railroads? Certainly his Iowa and Illinois boyhood was filled with the clickity-clack of the Wabash Cannonball and the chug-a-chug of Old Number Nine carrying our doughboys off to throttle the Kaiser.
Surely, it must have been a train which transported him from the hinterlands to Hollywood in the journey from radio announcer to the most celebrated supporting actor the movie industry will ever produce. With all these pleasant memories then, what makes Ronald Reagan the man who might very well make every future Amtrak trip a one-way ride to the station?
The reason could quite possibly be one of industrial ecology: We need the tracks. Melted down into steel, the thousands of miles of train tracks can become the MX missiles, the B-1 bombers and the Star Wars weapons of tomorrow. Yes, the Super Chief and the Atchison- Topeka and the Santa Fe will live again in the sky, and we won't have to buy the steel from the Kaiser's grandchildren to accomplish it.
Apparently, as the president sees it, we can bite the railroad spike and beat our dining cars into laser bombs (if we don't mind mixing a few metaphors to do it). The man who brought unemployment way down to 7.5 percent, the man who turned Minnesota and the District of Columbia into foreign possessions, the man who put voluntary prayer back into the parochial schools -- this same president will put a railroad in the heavens and cross-ties on the moon.
Pardon me boy,
Is that another MX missile?
I've got my fare
And twenty billion to spare.
Listen up you Russians,
We'll nail you to the wall.
We'll knock down
Anything you've got
With the Wabash Cannonball.
Do you hear that whistle
Down the line?
I figure that it's Engine
For the Milky Way
On the Atchison-Topeka
And the Santa Fe.
Whether or not my second-guessing the president is accurate, it seems that he believes Amtrak to be expendable. So his mandate must be that the lovely sound of the train whistle calling out to a Midwestern sky of a summer's evening, the rolling Berkshires slipping past your club-car window, the grandfatherly conductor checking his pocket watch, the silver coffeepot announcing a new morning in the domed dining cars of the California Zephyr as it races along Feather River Canyon -- all of this must be sacrificed so that one day Amtrak may approximate Doctor Zhivago's cattlecar through Siberia. Sacrificed for national defense -- and the charm of airport terminals. Even though at a subsidy of $35 a seat, Amtrak is still a better deal than a toilet seat cover for the Navy.