The iron horse seems to be galloping back into America's transportation race. Last year, at a time of widespread gasoline shortages and a major airline strike, Amtrak train ridership shot up to record levels. But, it was asked, would the interest continue in more normal times?
The good news for rail supporters is that one year later, in the face of full competition from intercity buses and airlines as well as a surplus of gasoline at the pumps, Amtrak has posted another increase in riders.
Between Oct. 1, 1979, and May 31, 1980, Amtrak trains carried almost 13.5 million passengers -- more than in any similar period in the corporation's nine-year history and about 76,000 more than during the same span last year. Note, however, that the 1978-79 period included some months in which no gas or transportation crises existed. ridership actually dropped 4.4 percent in May of this year over last year, but an Amtrak spokesman says that month would have been stronger had not a number of lines been discontinued in the past year.
Especially well traveled during the period were Amtrak's Washington to Cincinnati train, the Shenandoah, and its New York to New Orleans train, the Crescent. Curiously, ridership fell off in the Northeast Corridor, the heavily emphasized Washington to Boston trunk of the 12,000-mile system. One problem may be that on-time performance has been poor, especially between Washington and Philadelphia.
Rail supporters point out that this high ridership has continued despite the recession, when one might expect train travel to decrease. And interest in the rails seems to be holding up into the summer, say Amtrak officials.
A huge subsidy, to be sure, is helping feed the iron horses. The rails would have to hum constantly for passenger train service to account for more than its current 7 percent share of intercity travel. But the latest Amtrak report is encouraging.
"What it shows is that we are keeping most of the passengers who rode trains for the first time during the energy crisis," observes Amtrak spokeswoman Debbie Marciniak. "Right now we are doing terrific business."
One reason for Amtrak's staying power seems to be its improved rolling stock, which now carries an estimated 88 percent of its riders. Amtrak also has used part of its $900 million overall 1980 appropriation to rebuild the best of its old cars.
Besides more comfort for passengers, new and refurbished equipment appears to be helping with on-time performance (which means arriving within five to 30 minutes of the scheduled time, depending on the distance of the route). Despite some problems, trains were prompt 70 percent of the time this spring.
"Nothing will turn off business more quickly than poor equipment -- like crummy air conditioning in the summer or bad heating in the winter -- and poor reliability," says Barry Williams of the National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP), a pro-rail lobby. "The poor service in the years when Amtrak could not get sufficient support from Congress made it a waste of taxpayers' money."
That changed this year when Congress adopted a three- year spending authorization, giving the corporation more stability for planning. As it is, the surging ridership is helping Amtrak toward its congressionally ordered goal of paying 50 percent of its operating expenses by 1985.
But political changes could cause problems for the nationalized system. Mr. Williams says rail supporters fear that a Reagan administration would favor a national rail philosophy similar to that of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) or the American Conservative Union. Both groups brand the Amtrak experiment a failure:
"Intercity trains will follow forms of transportation such as ocean liners into oblivion," said on AEI release last March. Both groups advocate removal of congressional subsidy.
Now rail supporters have begun to counterattack by pointing out that autos and buses benefit from taxpayer-funded roadways, and airlines from subsidized airport construction.
NARP, which is involved in a coalition of groups fighting new highway construction, also contends trains are more energy-efficient than other forms of transportation. Some studies, however, show that because trains are rarely filled to capacity intercity buses actually are more efficient.