PART OF THE STORY of the Alaska Railroad comes right out of the Old West. As portrayed in last Monday's newspaper by Bill Richards, that railroad does almost everything it can to help the people who live along its tracks. Trains stop where passengers want to get on or off. They haul groceries and household supplies as well as freight. And you can eat, in the dining car, reindeer chops cooked over a woodburning stove. That's 1878, coming alive a century later. But then there's the rest of the story. The railroad's passenger operations are losing more than $1 million a year. Its freight revenues have dwindled. Its equipment is not in the best of shape. Without the government (which owns it), it wouldn't be in business at all or, certainly, for not much longer.
Now that part sounds more like 1978 - and the familiar story of the condition these days of many railroads in the continental United States.
Conrail, the corporation created by Congress two years ago to run the bankrupt railroads of the Northeast, now says it will need another $1.2 billion in federal loans (in addition to the $2.1 billion already authorized) over the next four years. Amtrak, that quasi-public corporation that runs passenger operations, has to have an annual subsidy of more than half a billion dollars to stay in business. Two Midwestern railroads - the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific - are in bankruptcy. Several other roads are in poor financial health and can't raise enough money on their own to maintain adequately their equipment and tracks. To top it off, the Interstate Commerce Commission, after all those years in which it slowed down and complicated railroad mergers, has suddenly proposed a new policy statement that would encourage and speed up mergers.
Comparisons between the situation of the Alaska Railroad and that of many other railroads are not hard to draw. Their problems began with the same events: the invention of the airplane and the construction of good highway systems, which diverted both passenger and freight business. And the solutions, if there are any, will be found in the same way: appeals to government for help. The fate of the Alaska Railroad is clearly in the hands of the administration and Congress. If it is to survive, the government will have to decide that the railroad provides necessary - as distinct from genteel and accommodating - service and then be prepared to subsidize its operations even more heavily than has been done in the past. The same, of course, is also true of Conrail and Amtrak; neither can survive without Uncle Sam as either banker or bill payer. And that could become true for several other railroads in the next decade or so.
Congress may or may not have a choice in Alaska; we don't know enough about that railroad's operations to form an opinion. But Congress doesn't have an option with Conrail. It has to put up the $1.2 billion, even though Conrail's projections are optimistic and it is likely to need even more money before 1982. Without Conrail to haul freight, much industry in the Northeast would die. The best Congress, or anyone else, can hope for is that Conrail will be able to drop even more of its unprofitable lines, negotiate better labor contracts, and find some way, some day, to become the profit-making corporation it was intended to be.
With Amtrak, it's another story. Sooner or later, Congress is going to have to reevaulate its decision to subsidize long-haul passenger trains. Amtrak is not doing well, despite its impressive efforts, outside of a handful of limited markets. We, at least, have begun to have doubts that the service provided on several of its routes is worth the present cost of operations.
Given that gloomy picture, the ICC's new policy proposal deserves some cheers. An intelligent merger policy and an easing of restrictions on abandoning little used or redundant track might provide the spark the railroad industry needs.Unless that happens and the industry is able to produce better management, service and labor agreements, one by one many other railroads will be coming to Washington and, like the Alaska Railroad, asking if their service is worth what it will cost the government to keep them running.