THERE IS A romantic allure to passenger train travel to which we are not immune ourselves: we'll be the first in line to see the latest Orient Express movie. But passenger trains do not run on romance alone. In this country, most of them require generous subsidies from the taxpayer--23.6 cents per mile, to be precise. Amtrak subsidies were begun a decade ago in the hope that the trains could prosper if they were better run. With one important exception--passenger service in the Northeast Corridor from Washington to New York--these hopes have not been fulfilled. According to a recent Congressional Budget Office study, Amtrak's cost per passenger mile in 1980 was 25 cents, compared with 8 cents for intercity buses and 12 cents for airlines.
Some Amtrak boosters like to compare our passenger railroads with Europe's or Japan's, and to suggest that if we just subsidized Amtrak a little more generously, we could achieve ridership levels like those abroad. There is one little problem: our geography is different. There are many heavily traveled intercity routes of 300 miles or less in Europe and Japan; there are few in the United States outside the Northeast Corridor. For trips of more than 300 miles, even the bullet train of Japan or the TGV of France cannot possibly compete with other modes: people for whom time is more important than money will prefer the airplane, people for whom money is more important than time will prefer the bus. Those whose points of departure or destinations are not, like those of most train stations, located in central cities may find other modes more convenient. So will most who want to transport an entire family.
The Reagan administration's plan to cut the Amtrak subsidy from $788 million to $600 million and to cancel the last long-haul passenger trains and concentrate Amtrak's attention on the Northeast Corridor are steps in the right direction. Those who want the joy of a long-haul passenger train trip have our sympathies, but we do not think they have much claim on the federal treasury any longer. The costs of subsidizing passenger train service outside the Northeast Corridor are so wildly out of proportion to the costs of subsidizing other modes of transportation that there can be no justification for continuing them--even those trains that make stops in well-connected congressmen's districts. The people have made known their opinion, by choosing not to ride the long-haul trains, and it is time for Congress to show the same good sense on this issue as the administration.