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Amtrak Steams Ahead

Amtrak has experienced a big spike in passengers since Sept. 11, a development that has raised new questions about the future of the financially clanky rail system.

First, does the experience of recent weeks demonstrate that rail remains a critical part of the American transportation picture?

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Will the traveling public's new interest brighten Amtrak's prospect of winning substantial new funding from Congress?

And even with added funds, is the system capable of chugging toward profitability?

Certainly the nation, and particularly East Coast travelers, can be grateful that a rail system was in place to take up the slack. Even as air travel has resumed, many people are still choosing the train, partly because heightened security is making air travel comparatively slower for short trips like Boston to New York.

Increased ridership could boost political support for sustaining Amtrak past the December 2002 deadline set by Congress for self-sufficiency. Amtrak supporters on the Hill are seeking $3.2 billion to upgrade security and improve equipment. That ought to be approved, since more effective security is a priority for all forms of mass transport.

Longer-term, Amtrak hopes for added billions for new tracks to support high-speed trains. Those hopes will collide with those who see the system as a financial black hole.

Yet, if even a fraction of what has been poured into highways and airports were given to trains, modern high-speed service could make rails truly competitive. Amtrak has made a start with its new Acela trains on the Boston-New York-Washington corridor. The current surge in rail use should encourage policymakers to look a little farther down the track.