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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Light at End of Amtrak's Tunnel?

WASHINGTON -- Amtrak and its government monitors are on different tracks as to whether the national railway is chugging along to a remarkable recovery or on a fast track to extinction.

Amtrak's supporters say the railway is becoming a financially viable, fast and reliable alternative to air travel.

Government watchdogs say Amtrak faces numerous obstacles to reaching self-sufficiency in time to avoid possible liquidation and a restructuring of the nation's passenger rail service.

Intercity rail connections undoubtedly would survive in some form even if Amtrak failed to show it could operate without government help by 2003, as federal law requires.

But an Amtrak failure could lead to tough questioning about the continued prospects of a nationwide rail system that includes many money-losing routes.

The disagreements are wide:

-Amtrak predicts its cash losses from 1999 through 2002 will total $1.6 billion. The Transportation Department's inspector general, citing Amtrak projections that "are at risk of not being achieved," predicted in July that the losses will reach $2.3 billion.

-Amtrak said it was $484 million shy of breaking free of government subsidies in 1999. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, put Amtrak's 1999 operating loss at $907 million.

-On Oct. 28, Amtrak chairman Tommy Thompson, the governor of Wisconsin, said the railway has brought "the goal of operational self-sufficiency well within our sights."

That same day, Phyllis Scheinberg, the government's associate director for transportation issues, reported to Congress that "it will be difficult for Amtrak to successfully carry out its plan."

Amtrak officials do not dispute the figures, but say self-sufficiency is not the same as breaking even. Calculating the "cash position" of operations, which excludes the cost of equipment depreciation, Amtrak said it was $484 million short of self-sufficiency in 1999.