TOUGH RHETORIC MAY BELIE an empty threat in the battle to override President Bush's veto of the Amtrak reauthorization bill and the controversial provision expanding the Interstate Commerce Commission's authority to review some rail sales.

The president, who opposed the ICC language, let it be known Wednesday night that he would sign an Amtrak bill without the railroad buy-out provision. Such a bill was introduced in the House Thursday morning.That prompted a letter from Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a master of hardball politics, to Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., his transportation counterpart in the Senate.

Rep. Dingell warned that time was too short in the current congressional session for the House to approve a new Amtrak bill without the railroad provision. Those who care about Amtrak funding, he said, should vote to override the veto and approve the bill.

Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., did not appreciate the Dingell letter.

"I must say that in my time in the Senate, I have never seen a letter quite like this," Sen. Danforth said on the floor. "We have received veto messages from the president of the United States throughout history. I do not know that I have ever received a veto message from the chairman of the committee of the House of Representatives."

He then called Rep. Dingell's threat empty.

"The fact of the matter is that Amtrak does not need an authorization bill to function. An appropriation does the trick. There have been many times in the past when agencies have operated literally for years - the Federal Trade Commission would be one example - without any authorization bill having been passed whatsoever . . . .

"This letter is hardball, an attempt at hardball poli- tics . . . ," Sen. Danforth said of the Dingell missive, "but when the hardball crosses the plate, it turns out to be a paper wad."

Sounds as though an Amtrak supporter is holding the Amtrak bill hostage, doesn't it?

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CONTAINERS CAUGHT TRAILERS for the first time in the history of rail intermodal traffic in the week ended June 2.

Of some 101,286 units carried, the Association of American Railroads reports, 50,659 were containers and 50,627 were trailers.