The big issue about Amtrak is not whether Congress will keep defying President Reagan by forking over the $600 million or so a year Amtrak says it needs to survive, but whether the railroad actually needs the subsidy.
A lively band of critics - friends of rail travel but skeptics about Amtrak management - say it doesn't.Austin Coates is a leader of the band, a Jacksonville, Fla., auto mechanic who travels Amtrak's rails spreading the message that there has to be a ''better way."
"That appropriation is like an annual dole, a mistress going for her allowance," he says. "Aviation is funded under the table, trucks, buses, cabs are funded under the table and Amtrak's on top of the table every year."
Despite President Reagan's much ballyhooed charge that each rail passenger gets a $33 subsidy, competing estimates say everyone stepping on an airliner gets a $39 subsidy through such outlays as air traffic control and federal airport subsidies.
Andrew Selden, a Minneapolis business lawyer and rails expert, believes Amtrak is a real national asset, but that it can survive without subsidies. So Mr. Selden produced a comprehensive plan to make the system a moneymaker.
Mr. Selden would start by selling off the Washington-to-Boston Northeast Corridor to independent owners who could lease line space back to Amtrak for less than the corridor's current $277 million deficit. The new owners would earn revenue from leases for commuter railways, aggressive exploitation of station-related real-estate opportunities, fiber optic lines along rights-of- way and taking advantage of tax-depreciation allowances.
Other Selden recommendations: Lease stations to travel agents, restaurants or others who'd agree to sell tickets and announce trains. Restructure routes and schedules to make connections easier - like the profitable hub system for airlines. Reform expensive labor rules.
Not everyone thinks the Selden-Coates ideas make sense. Among the skeptics: the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which lobbies for maximum Amtrak subsidies and rarely questions management's judgment. NARP director Ross Capon says such ideas as selling off the Northeast Corridor, or suggesting subsidies could shrink, are "extremely damaging," "pure nonsense," and "reflect complete ignorance."
But the reform ideas keep clicking in. Within Amtrak itself, there's an underground of employees who charge the system is "experiencing the worst management decisions ever made." A group of them issued an anonymous broadside in May alleging that an astounding 42 percent of Amtrak personnel have some kind of management title.
Top-heavy management not only inflates costs and subsidy needs but makes it tough to make decisions, Amtrak insiders charge, noting that it's taken five years to develop a plan to rehabilitate Amtrak's architecturally distinguished 30th Street Station in Philadelphia.
Employees and critics also report that package express and mail-hauling opportunities are routinely unexploited, and that advertising campaigns lack the tempting regional angles airlines have learned to exploit.
If only half the charges against Amtrak are true, it may be time for the friends of rail service to suspend their knee-jerk support for the subsidies and join Mr. Coates, Mr. Selden, and others, in demanding the system get off the dole. Not by cutting service, but by worthwhile management.