Today's Seattle Times had a column by Neil Pierce which dealt with the Bush Administration's plan to stop dumping money into the fiscal black hole known as Amtrak. Mr. Pierce is dead-set against the idea of killing Amtrak, although he recognizes that Amtrak as currently configured is not functioning effectively. However, he dismisses (as politically unworkable) the only real way to make Amtrak work in this country, and that for it to jettison the long-distance routes and become a commuter rail service. He makes the mistake of portraying Amtrak as competing for money against automobiles (and roads); their real competitor (which he doesn't mention at all) is Air Travel. When it comes to long distances, the plane is the way to travel.
A personal example, to provide an illustration: I will be travelling from Seattle to New York for a week in late September to attend my sister's wedding. A quick search on Expedia shows that I can fly one of three airlines non-stop from Seattle to JFK and back for $291; the total travel time is about five hours. Taking seven days of leave will allow me five days in New York and one day for travel each way. Amtrak is actually a bit cheaper, as it will cost me only $232 to travel, but I'll miss the rehearsal dinner AND the wedding if I leave on Wednesday; that train doesn't get me to New York until 3:30PM on Saturday. If I want to get back to Seattle and use only seven days of leave, I will have to head back before I arrive, since it's a four-day trip each way. Note that I won't get a chance to see any of the sights in New York with the $59 I'd save on the train.
Mr. Pierce also drags out two tired, familiar tropes: The rest of the industrialized world, and the number of cars that a train can replace. They're both red herrings. The rest of the industrialized world is dealing with geographically compact areas (both Germany and Japan are roughly the same size as Montana). The whole thing about trains reducing the number of cars on the road would be more convincing if it were true. However, most cities with light rail (or heavy rail) have not seen a significant reduction in traffic when their systems came on line, which indicates that their residents would rather deal with traffic (and high gas prices) and enjoy the freedom of a car, rather than the restrictions of a rail system.
Theoretically, I'm one of the people who should be championing Amtrak; I'm a non-driver who has actually made use of Amtrak. I used to take the train to visit friends in Irvine every so often. My father uses Amtrak to visit my mother on holidays; the nearest airport is over 80 miles away, but there is an Amtrak station right in Sebring. However, I recognize that Amtrak needs to be retooled in order to function. Pierce is right that killing Amtrak outright is not the solution, but something radical needs to be done to preserve the parts of Amtrak that are worth saving. The California Surfliner and the Northeast corridor trains break even, and some of the shorter commuter lines elsewhere have enough riders to make sense, but the "Sunset Limited" and the "City of New Orleans" are relics of another era. Let them become fond memories, rather than sad attempts to recapture the past.