Trains may not be quite the leviathans of commerce they were through the 19th and early 20th century, but they still cast a large shadow on the economy. A shadow little noticed until there's trouble.
Trouble, today, means the extraordinary problems faced by the Union Pacific, the largest US freight hauler, in keeping its trains running. Last year, UP bought a huge competitor, the Southern Pacific Rail Corporation, and it has had persistent problems handling the larger volume of traffic.
Trouble also means threats to Amtrak's passenger service, where customers are all too sparse. But Amtrak looms large in parts of the country, like the Northeast, where trains still move large numbers of people to work and between cities. Amtrak faces triple crises: (1) The maintenance of way workers, who keep track in shape, are threatening to strike over pay Oct. 29. That not only would stop Amtrak's intercity trains, but also knock out commuter trains on rails maintained by Amtrak. (2) Amtrak's safety record was recently scored by the National Transportation Safety Board. At issue was the company's failure to fix weakened track on a New Jersey bridge, the scene of a derailment last year. (3) Finally, Amtrak is sinking further into debt, and can expect only lukewarm help from Congress.
Yet travel by rail still helps bind cities and regions together, and freight rail remains economically pivotal. The railroads need to be working in 1997 no less than in 1897. The government, and the public, can't forget that.