Nostalgia being the business it is, you may recall the flickering old silent. "The Perils of Pauline." Pulse-pounding high drama: the train hurtling down the track full throttle, the heroins strapped to the rails, eyes rolling, crying piteously, the hero racing to the rescue, desperately fighting off villains. Will he get there in time? Will she be saved? End of reel, return next week for the conclusion.

Something like that is happening today, but not to a fictional Pauline. Today, our entire train system is in danger of jumping the track. Over at L'Eniant Plaza this morning the board of directors of Amtrak, the national passenger rail service are facing a harsh decision. They must decide whether to let a drastic cut in train service go into effect later this week or hold off in the hope that Congress will come up with additional money to maintain present schedules. Either way, it's another chapter in the continuing saga of our crisis-ridden railroads.

This latest crisis may well be the most significant of all. What's at stake is more than the elimination of some 20 daily trains in the nation's most populous corridor between Boston and Washington with all the disruption and inconvenience that cutback will bring. The issue quite simply is whether we really want a national rail service, and are prepared to pay for it.

At the last meeting of the Amtrak board, Paul Reistrup, the president, posted the question starkly.

"If this country wants intercity passenger rail service as a viable travel option for its citizens, then its funding level should permit such a system to be developed and operated properly," he said.

Reistrup added:

"If we don't want to build and support a properly operated system, then maybe we should eliminate it entirely."

A few days ago, in somber and blunt testimony, he repeated those words at a congressional hearing on Amtrak's problems and future.

Amtrak's present difficulties are simple enough: not enough money. In its last budget request, it asked for an appropriation of $534.1 million. The Ford administration budget permitted $490 million. Under the Carter administration, that was increased to $500 million. Congress finally appropriated $488.5 million. Amtrak's only alternative was to announce elimination of daily trains. Now it must decide whether to go through with that reduction or wait by gambling that help is on the way. Two weeks ago an amendment to a supplemental appropriations bill was offered by Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.). It would give Amtrak enough money to keep on operating as scheduled until the first of the year. Then, Act Two: another round of agonizing over money and service, another hard look at Amtrak's future.

There, for the moment, the issue rests - hangs is a better word. That explains why a certain bitter tone comes through Reistrup's words to Congress. "What we have now," he said, "stands policymaking on its head.The budget process is now driving the public policy decisions. OMB and DOT [Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Transportation] are telling us that the deficit must not only be contained, it must be reduced. We are telling them and telling you this means fewer trains and fewer routes. We are being told to conform anyway."

And now, he says, OMB and DOT are not even supporting the $500 million for operations that is in the administration's budget. "Accountants are writing national transportation policy," he says.

"Rip-off" is a relatively new term, as far as I can make out, but that expression perfectly captures the history of American railroads. Long ago we, the people, gave the railroads the right of way - and the right to possess some of the most valuable territory in the world - and then we sat back and watched them run it into the ground. By the time Amtrak was created six years ago, rail passengers service was a dying business. Trains, tracks, stations, service and personnel all were falling apart. The railroads were broke - losses were running at half a billion dollars a year - and the system was deteriorating at an accelerating rate. That's when the government, in the form of Amtrak, took over. Blare of trumpets, pounding of hooves, saved in the nick . . . Rescue.

Let it be said, right away, that I am not neutral in this matter. I like trains, believe them a necessity, think it a scandal we have permitted them to decline so egregiously. I have, as many of you must, fond memories of the traveling in comfort, even elegance, of our European rail counterpart. They are, at best, a civilizing influence. Let it also be said that despite its problems Amtrak has given us better service and equipment than we had.

There are, in fact, bright spots.

After declining steadily for a generation, train ridership is now up: last year Amtrak gained a million new riders. Plans have been completed for major improvements in trains, tracks and stations in five states and along the heavily traveled Northeast corridor. And out in Pueblo, Colo., and all-new "Superliner" train is being tested on Transportation Department tracks. The new cars, among them the first sleeping cars built in the United States in a generation, are double-deckers designed for long-distance runs. They were scheduled to go on line in the West last summer, but a Pullman Standard Co. strike has delayed their completion.

Fine enough. Then there's the other side, one that all travelers suspect, or have become sadly accustomed to: you can't count on the trains. It is a fact, as an enterprising reporter for the Washington Star has calculated, that Amtrak's trains today are slower than those of 30 years ago. Not only slower, but worse: they are becoming more unreliable. I have in front of me the latest figures on Amtrak's on-time performance. A year ago, your chances of being on time throughout the entire system were 80.4 per cent. Today they are 67.3 per cent. The drop occurs in both short-haul and long-distance runs.

Take the Metroliner, for instance. There are 748 trains scheduled. Last year, your chances of being on time on the Metroliner were 67.5 per cent. Today they are 55.1 per cent. New York to Miami, the most frequent long distance run? A year ago, 84 per cent on time. Now, 75 per cent, Chicago-Miami? A year ago 90 per cent on time. Now, you get there on schedule only half the time.

The explanation for this sorry record brings you back to the beginning. The tracks and roadbeds are in dreadful condition: it takes time and money, lots of each, to repair and replace them.

And it takes something else: talent and commitment. One of the saddest commentaries on the decline of the rails in the last generation was the loss of the dedicated old-time railroader. The old timers just kept getting older. As they left, their ranks were not filled by talented younger ones. As Reistrup says, "Out on the railroad today we have a whole missing generation, and this is just one price we are paying for coming so late to the rescue of our national rail passenger service."

A friend has lived in Japan for many years. One of the delights, he says, all the trains. Not only are they splendid in all respects, but you can rely on them. You know you'll get there on time. They are so reliable that each station has a refund booth: if you're late you get money back. The fares are pegged to the speed: the faster service you select, the more you pay. The ultimate is Japan's "bullet" express train - the Shinkansen - which travels at speeds up to 120 miles an hour. There's nothing finer, my friend says, then sitting in the bar car, sipping a Kirin beer, watching the speedometer mounted to the car's wall, and knowing you are going to arrive safely, comfortably and exactly on time.

"Why can't we do that?" he says.

Why, indeed?

For Amtrak, it seems, it's either all aboard or end of the line. Will virtue triumph? Will Dick Daring get there in time? Will Pauline be saved? Stayed tuned.