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Abilene ready to hear again, All aboard! - Amtrak passenger service in future

As it moved west from Fort Worth in 1881 and needed a rest stop at this particular point along the tracks, the Texas & Pacific Railroad literally created Abilene. Well into the 20th century, Abilene grew and prospered largely because this was a place where people could get off and on the train. When that ended in 1967, Abilene lost more than a contact with history.

Even without that colorful railroad past, this week’s announcement that Amtrak will be returning passenger service to Abilene within the next couple of years is news to celebrate. Such a development — long advocated by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who chairs the Senate surface transportation subcommittee, and supported with $100,000 from the Abilene City Council — is sure to produce an economic boon from increased tourism, not to mention the added value of furnishing additional transportation opportunities for local residents.

Eastland and Big Spring, also designated as stops for the Amtrak Sunset Limited between Fort Worth and El Paso, are sure to benefit, too.

And the big winners in all this are American travelers and Amtrak itself.

Amtrak was up for the chop when the Reagan administration swept into Washington in 1981. Long-distance rail passenger service was an expensive anachronism, the government-cutters argued, and the rail line had no realistic hope of making a profit. The economics just weren’t there. On some routes it would have been cheaper to buy the passengers first-class airline tickets than to operate the trains.

Expanding in 21 states

All of this was true; much of it still is. And Amtrak, now a 22,000-mile system in 45 states, has just announced it will expand rail service in 21 of those states. President Clinton has proposed almost doubling Amtrak’s budget this year from $521 million to $989 million to improve its trains and facilities.

“With this major funding increase this year, we can help ensure a thriving passenger rail system for many years to come,” the president said. “Thriving” may be a tad optimistic. With its new routes and expanded express deliveries of such time-sensitive merchandise as frozen meat, car parts and magazines, Amtrak hopes to cover its operating costs, but not its capital costs, by 2003. That’s a fair bargain.

Amtrak has survived on a heady mixture of sentimentality, optimism and down-home politics. Voters like the idea of rail travel, and Congress is willing, sometimes grudgingly, to pay for it.

For a change, the optimists may be right, at least on certain routes. As Amtrak gets faster and more efficient, air travel may be approaching gridlock. In less than a decade, the number of air passengers is expected to grow 60 percent, an increase that will require 10 new airports the size of Dallas-Fort Worth. Rail travel could become a realistic alternative in congested areas, as it is now on Amtrak’s New York-Washington corridor.

Then there is Amtrak’s plan for a new, luxury transcontinental train that will travel between New York and Los Angeles in 60 hours. That means a promise of technological marvels first made in the 1840s will still hold in the 21st century: Americans will be able to travel coast-to-coast by train. And Abilene will be a passenger railroad town once again.

Abilene Reporter-News