It is not yet clear what will be the final outcome of the latest funding crisis to hit the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), the federally supported intercity railroad passenger service. There have been reports of a possible last-minute “compromise” solution. Demands have been raised, in Congress and elsewhere, for drastic cuts in service, elimination of “unprofitable” routes, “restructuring” and possible partial privatization. Amtrak’s management has itself proposed some of these.

This is not the first time that efforts have been made to abolish federal subsidies for Amtrak. But this time, more so than previously, there is an apparent concerted attempt to destroy it entirely.

What is evident is that this does not occur in isolation from the general push, by the Bush administration and its allies and supporters, to privatize everything capable of being milked for corporate profit, to dismantle basic public services such as free public education, to prevent the creation of a health care system based on people, not profits, and similar policies.

It is also clear that there are corporate interests, some of the most powerful, which regard railroad passenger (and some freight) service as a threat to their quest for maximum profits. These interests, with oil at the top, but also including steel, auto, rubber, aircraft, trucking, bus and airline, have, since the mid-20th century, determined national transportation policy. This is what has led to the mass destruction of almost all the passenger and local freight train operations that once served the entire country, and the present lopsided over-dependence on highway and air transport.

Federal, state, and local governments have generously promoted this for over half a century, with massive construction of highways, airports and other facilities, and other forms of support. This has had disastrous effects, contributing to the decline of cities, suburban sprawl, depletion of resources and degradation of the environment, health and safety, and other aspects of working-class life.

Such policies have, and still do, create a “build it and they will come” effect – the more they build, the more traffic is generated, and the resulting vicious cycle keeps road and air transport in a never-ending state of overburdened crisis. And, since railroad workers are highly unionized, this has a union-busting implication as well. Unfortunately, though, railroad labor has historically been fragmented in various unions, which has limited its ability to resist this policy and its results.

In the past, when railroads were the only form of overland transportation, they were highly profitable. As other forms of transportation developed, rail became an “everything or nothing” proposition for the private rail companies: if they couldn’t have all of the passenger (and local freight) traffic, then they no longer wanted any of it – it was no longer sufficiently profitable for them. Essentially, today railroads in our country are used only to transport loads so huge that they cannot possibly be carried by any other means. On this, the private freight railroad companies make profit.

Moreover, government policy previously favored rail operations in various ways, including using railroads as the primary carrier of mail. After World War II the policy changed. Mail was shifted to the airlines, the interstate highway system was built, and other generous benefits were provided to road and air transport by federal, state and local governments. In response, commuter train services were taken over by regional public authorities, most long-distance passenger train services were discontinued, and local freight and small-town passenger train services were almost completely eliminated.

By the 1960s there were threats that intercity passenger service would soon disappear entirely. The private railroad companies were determined to be rid of it because there was more profit to be made elsewhere.

Amtrak was created by the Federal government in 1971 to maintain a minimal, very fragmentary intercity passenger service, with much of the country having none. Essentially, that is still what we have, though huge investments have been made in capital improvement of Amtrak. Despite its limited coverage and high fares, due to insufficient financial support, Amtrak provides an essential service and is greatly in demand. It is, though, burdened by the fact that most of its trains operate over tracks of the private companies. It has to pay these companies for use of the tracks and is also dependent on their operations and maintenance, which sometimes impede Amtrak’s service.

Whether Amtrak is rescued from the current campaign to destroy it may well depend upon how much public pressure is put on Congress to stop any reductions in its operations. Saving Amtrak is a quality-of-life issue for this country, including for those who themselves do not use it.

John Morris is a reader in Philadelphia. He can be reached at