Arnie WeissmannI was recently invited to play in a fantasy basketball game organized by Amtrak. What made it a fantasy was that it took place at Madison Square Garden and invitees formed two teams -- Amtrak White and Amtrak Blue -- coached, respectively, by former New York Knicks stars Earl Monroe and John Starks.

It would have been fantasy enough to survive a 40-minute, full-court game with my 12-year-old daughter and her friends at her middle-school gym -- with baskets lowered. But I accepted the invitation.

I admit that I am not a big fan of sports-business analogies, but when the Amtrak fantasy game was over, I found myself thinking about parallels between the play on the court and Amtraks current funding woes.

Actually, not just Amtraks current funding woes, but its chronic funding woes.

In the 35-odd years of Amtraks existence, there has been a persistent fantasy on the part of Congress that, with the structure that Congress created, the railroad could fulfill its service mandate and be profitable.

But rather than deal with the flaws in the structure, some members of Congress would rather stand up and bash Amtrak as an inefficient bureaucracy thats unable to turn a buck.

The bashing takes a lot less work than fixing the problems, and has the added benefit of playing well in certain circles.

The reality is that Amtraks congressional mandate concurrently demands profitability and guarantees it will forever need subsidization. It cant win.

Alan Boyd, the nations first Secretary of Transportation, served as president of Amtrak from 1978 to 1982. During that tenure, he told Travel Weekly that, in order to get the political support it needed to be created, Amtrak had to establish itself as a national passenger-railroad system. In other words, it had to make an attempt to connect the dots across 3.5 million square miles.

To accomplish this Congressional mandate, Amtrak must, to this day, maintain thousands of miles of routes that can never be made profitable.

There are, of course, some regions in the country where train travel makes a lot of sense: the East Coast corridor, the Texas Triangle, a San Diego-Seattle run, a limited Chicago-Midwest network.

If these were the only routes where Amtrak had to operate, I have little doubt it could become the well-run, profitable corporation that Congress wants it to be.

But it would literally require an act of Congress to change the current mandate that requires it to serve the entire country, and instead allow Amtrak to create a system of high-volume, high-yield, regional services.

Because Congress has dragged its heels on restructuring Amtrak, the administration is trying to force the issue by refusing further subsidy for the existing system, a move that now threatens sensible, profitable routes.

Fantasy sports can be a lot of fun. Fantasy business goals only lead to frustration and failure.


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