AMTRAK IS CHANGING
TO A SENSITIVE RAILROADIt is a shame that James E. Coston's support for rail passenger service is clouded by his fixation on killing Amtrak (''Passenger trains, yes; Amtrak, no,'' July 29, Page 9A).
The diatribe about why Amtrak is broke misses a number of key points. Amtrak is not ''genetically coded (to) function as a federal bureaucracy impersonating a travel company.''
It is a company attempting to overcome a private freight railroad culture developed over generations that was arrogant, ham-handed and insensitive to customer needs. That freight railroad culture nearly killed passenger service.
Amtrak is still attempting to change from that private railroad culture to a business-oriented service firm. It is not ''an organizational transvestite.'' It is a firm struggling to change one of the oldest corporate cultures in America. Mr. Coston's refrain that Amtrak has reached an evolutionary dead end is simply a myopic view of where the company has been and where it is going.
Amtrak knows where it's going with long-distance service, and the future is a mix of customer service excellence and mail and express.
Its vision is also clear when it comes to the future of the Northeast Corridor.
The Amtrak board of directors has directed the investment of $750 million of private money to acquire 18 high-speed train sets and their support facilities for delivery in 1999. We did not have a ''26-year reluctance to seize the high-speed'' service; Congress had a 26-year reluctance to invest any national funds in such a service, while Europe and Asia proceeded to demonstrate the viability of high-speed rail.
If Congress and the administration are at the end of their vision about Amtrak, it's because they have forced the company into a hole by drastic reductions in operating subsidy.
This railroad has, in effect been financing itself in the private marketplace with business investors from around the world. Ironically, our investors have a better business sense of Amtrak's future than other ''business experts.''
The one area that Mr. Coston seems most lost is in the relationship of Amtrak to the freight railroads. He does not understand the value of our incremental cost access on freight railroads or that incremental access is not transferable to other ''competitors.''
He does not understand the value of having all of the trackage that Amtrak operates over outside of the Northeast Corridor being in the private sector where it's very well funded.
He does not understand the freight railroads' adamant opposition to ''federal tax credits to compensate (them) for handling (Amtrak) trains.'' Freight railroads were adamant in their insistence on leaving the passenger railroad business and have no interest in returning to it.
Mr. Coston's frustration with the inability to sell a pet rail project in the Chicago region has led him to attack the entire concept of a national passenger railroad. His vision seems to be particularly lacking and particularly parochial.
After meeting with Mr. Coston, I was singularly struck with his failure to raise, let alone articulate, a single point that he has raised in his article.
It is apparently easier to write newspaper op-eds than it is to have a real dialogue about the future of this business. That's disappointing.
Thomas M. Downs
AMTRAK IS CHANGING