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Keep 'Em Rolling

PASSENGER rail service still has a place in America's future, despite the substantial route cuts announced by Amtrak over the last few months.

The most recent pruning back, made public April 6, reduced the number of daily trains serving widespread parts of the Midwest.

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The train system's future rests on clear indications that many Americans prefer this means of travel. Overall Amtrak service grew by 48 percent between 1982 and 1993. Long distance ridership increased by 52 percent. As Amtrak enthusiasts like to point out, when decent service is provided, the people ride.

The round of cutbacks was engineered by Amtrak management to preempt even deeper slices by Congress, which funds the publicly subsidized system. A problem is that the truncating of routes can create awkward connections and confusing schedules. That, of course, discourages potential riders and must be minimized.

Amtrak president Thomas Downs had little choice but to trim his operation, which was running a $240 million yearly deficit and has been targeted for ''zeroing out'' by congressional budget cutters. By taking the initiative itself, the rail system will make it through the year without asking Congress for supplemental money and can also get rid of outdated equipment, thus upgrading the service that remains. This show of fiscal grit also strengthens the hand of Amtrak's defenders in Congress.

The defenders aren't just in Congress, either. Small-town mayors and others from the hinterlands have let their representatives know that rail is important in their lives. Governors found ways to come up with money to keep service coming to cities that lost their rail connections in Amtrak's earlier round of cutbacks last December.

Yes, rail service is expensive to maintain, but it's well to remember that Amtrak has to get all its subsidies up front -- not hidden, like the federal dollars that go to maintain highways for cars and buses or into airports.

Rail is a quiet, more comfortable alternative for millions of Americans, to say nothing of its energy efficiency and environmental soundness. The high-speed electric trains about to make their US debut will further strengthen the case for keeping the rail option open.

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