GIVE AWAY AMTRAK

AMTRAK ONCE AGAIN IS ON THE BLOCK, and once again the Reagan administration is unlikely to find any takers.

The Reagan people last year first proposed to sell off financially viable parts of the government-owned passenger railroad corporation. The scheme called for three steps: 1) Amtrak subsidies would cease; 2) the railroad would ''enter bankruptcy;" and 3) those "portions of the system that may potentially be operated without government assistance" would be privatized.The plan never even got off the ground. It managed to antagonize all four of Amtrak's principal constituencies: the 25,000 Amtrak workers and their union leaders; the 14,000-member National Association of Railroad Passengers and at least two other passenger organizations; Amtrak's management, which accounts for 42 percent of the system's total work force; and congressmen in the heavily traveled Northeast and other areas where, the legislators feel, shutting down Amtrak would mean political suicide.

In this year's budget, the administration is proposing to sell that section of the system that provides high speed service between Washington, New York and Boston, the so-called Northeast Corridor, for the "book value" of $1.5 billion. Only recently, the government was disappointed to learn that government-owned Conrail, which offers rail freight service in the Northeast and Midwest, was unlikely to bring more than $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion in a public offering, well below the $1.7 billion the administration had hoped for. In contrast to Conrail, which has become a profitable operation, Amtrak has been a perennial money loser. As a result, no one in his right mind would pay anything close to what the administration is asking.

Indeed, the extent of Amtrak's losses is the principal reason for the administration's concern. None of Amtrak's routes break even. On several - the Portland to Seattle line, for instance - taxpayers underwrite 70 percent of the costs. The average federal handout for each rider on all Amtrak routes is between $25 and $30 a passenger, up from $3 a rider in 1973.

An assessment by Stephen Moore for the Heritage Foundation says that in 1983 the taxpayer contribution for each rider from Chicago to New York was $109. In the same year, a discount air fare on the same route could be had for as little as $69. That means, he says, that if the government had simply provided each rider on the line with a free airline ticket, the taxpayer would have been saved $40 a passenger.

Mr. Moore has come up with a startling and innovative proposal. He wants to give away the Northeast Corridor to its workers and frequent riders. After all, he observes, the system not only yields no revenue to taxpayers but actually costs them money.

His plan calls for four steps: 1) give 80 percent of the assets to workers and management;2) offer workers the option of continuing with the new corporation or joining Amtrak's other operations. Those who stay would be given an annuity worth their accumulated pensions, to be cashed upon retirement, guaranteeing that the government would honor existing severance pay agreements; 3) give the remaining 20 percent to riders who have achieved ''frequent passenger" status; 4) require that the new corporation maintain a minimum of 80 percent of existing passenger miles for at least 20 years.

The strategy seeks quite frankly to enlist those who have been its most vigorous opponents in behalf of privatization. It's a daring scheme and one that should engage the attention of an executive branch truly interested in doing something about a subsidy until now believed to be politically sacrosanct.

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