Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Take me right back to the track, Jack
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This week I made a rare American journey. Not in geographic terms - it was just a last-minute round trip from Washington DC to southern Connecticut, about 280 miles each way. But the distance was too far to drive, especially with New York to be either crossed or circumvented. And as a last-minute booking it was shockingly expensive by air (which didn't offer a very good connection anyway). So I committed a highly un-American act. I took the train.

The timing was very tight; I was scheduled to arrive half an hour before my meeting, while the last Amtrak express back to Washington left half an hour after it was due to end. Mindful of recent Amtrak horror stories, I packed an overnight bag, all but convinced that something would go wrong. Violent thunderstorms were being forecast, and a few weeks before, a power failure had halted all trains on the north-eastern corridor for four hours. Personal experience, too, was not encouraging. Almost always when I travel by rail here, there's some delay, for reasons mostly unexplained. In short, it was a major gamble.

But it paid off brilliantly. Both trains, Acela expresses with business-class seating, were punctual to the minute. I made the meeting easily and got home by midnight, the overnight bag untouched. And the obvious thought struck me: why can't it always be like this, trains you can trust, that run on time? Alas, Amtrak, which is a quasi-state corporation, has been a political football ever since it was set up in 1971 to take over most of what was left of America's once glorious passenger rail system. In 35 years, it has run up total debts of $3.5bn (£1.9bn) and never once made a profit. Its 2005 loss was $550m. For decades now, Amtrak has been caught in the classic dilemma, between passenger demands for a better service and demands from politicians that it tighten its belt and turn a profit.

As anyone who witnessed the post-war decline of railways in Britain will know, those two are all but irreconcilable. Trains are a social service, with a social cost, but with massive if unquantifiable social benefits as well. But under the Bush administration the Amtrak problem has come to a head. If it doesn't make money, then shut it down, say its conservative ideologues: the markets know best.

Last year they tried to get rid of Amtrak's $1.3bn subsidy in its entirety - conveniently ignoring the vastly larger per capita subsidies doled out to the airlines and road system. They failed, but the subsidy was slashed by a third, to just $900m in the proposed federal budget for 2006-07. The results of this chronic underfunding have been utterly predictable: a deterioration of essential infrastructure and a lack of maintenance which David Gunn - the Canadian who is generally regarded as the most effective chief executive in Amtrak's history - warned would bring the firm to collapse.

Then Mr Gunn went further last year, suggesting that collapse was exactly what the administration was after, as part of a grand design to break up Amtrak and part-privatise the most profitable bits. Mr Gunn's bravery in telling the truth earned him the sack in November 2005. Eight months later, no permanent replacement has been named. Amtrak, meanwhile, staggers on.

All of which makes my happy experience last week so frustrating. If ever there was a time for an American government to boost spending on rail travel, it is now, in this age of ever more congested highways and ever more stressful air travel, as petrol prices soar past the (for Americans) exorbitant level of $3 a gallon. Rail travel, moreover, requires barely half the energy per passenger mile consumed by planes and passenger cars.

The north-east corridor is not the only place suited for high-speed rail travel - take the Texas triangle of Dallas-Houston-San Antonio, or Los Angeles-San Francisco, or St Louis-Chicago-Milwaukee. Then there are slightly longer overnight sleeper routes, all of them attractive propositions.

And despite the decades of neglect, the vestiges of a great train network remain, waiting for the resurrection. A couple of months ago, I was in Abilene, Kansas, listening to locals bemoan the lack of trains to Kansas City. "But there's a station, tracks and trains. I've heard them," I said. "Yes," came the answer, "there's trains, 40 of them a day. But they're all freight."