As Amtrak contemplates its own demise, a number of train initiatives across the country signal the beginnings of an American rail renaissance

On a crisp, clear day in January, I took a jolt-free ride on the Downeaster, Amtrak's newest train, from Boston to Portland, Maine. With a top speed of 80 mph, it's not the most technologically advanced train on the continent, but it's the most charming, the only one that makes you feel tucked in. In keeping with its community roots—90,000 Mainiacs petitioned the state in 1990 to restore the service, which had terminated in 1965—the Downeaster is the first passenger line with a squad of volunteer hosts on board and in the stations, acting as welcomers and problem-solvers.

What's more, the gleaming Downeaster serves up real New England scenery (red barns, green cornfields, white steeples) and delicacies (the clam chowder sells out on almost every run). Maine's governor, Angus S. King Jr., at first a skeptic, is now the project's biggest booster, telling audiences, "I want you to drive to Boston one more time"—a crowded, rage-inducing trip—"and then take the train. You won't drive again."

The true hero of the Downeaster sat next to me. Wayne Davis, a former banker, had spent the past 13 years fighting to sustain the project. "I couldn't give in, you see," he said, with New England understatement, after a spoonful of chowder. "It needed to be done."

I was beginning to believe that Davis's success story on rails might be part of an American rail renaissance, despite the fact that 600 miles away in Washington, Congress was about to hear proposals to dismantle Amtrak, which has failed to meet a 1997 mandate that it be able to pay its own way by the end of 2002. Hearings are set for this month; a decision is expected sometime this year. Even if Amtrak goes the way of the woolly mammoth—as many believe it should—a new network of high-speed rail lines as good as Europe's, along with slower "land cruises," may well take its place, powered not by bureaucrats but by a nationwide collection of scrappy citizen activists, risk-takers in state capitals, and creative thinkers. What's required, they say, is more investment, both public and private, and a new focus on what people really need and deserve when they move from place to place.

What's not required, most seem to agree, is a prolongation of Amtrak's status quo. The railroad's current crisis began February 1, when Amtrak's president, George Warrington, told Congress that unless it gives the railroad $1.2 billion by September 30 (twice last year's appropriation), he will shrink operations down to little more than the Northeast Corridor—the 457 miles between Boston, New York, and Washington, and Amtrak's sole moneymaker. Most or all of the 18 daily long-distance trains—with familiar names like the Crescent, from New York to New Orleans, and the California Zephyr, between Chicago and San Francisco—would disappear.

A week later, the Amtrak Reform Council, a watchdog group set up in 1997, told Congress that the railroad would never be profitable, and recommended a different reconfiguration. The Northeast Corridor—one of the few stretches of track Amtrak owns, the rest being the property of freight railroads—would be spun off for possible future sale. Amtrak itself would be split in two: a national planning and reservations organization and an operating railroad. The national entity could award the rights to run trains either to the new operating company or to private franchises.

For decades, Amtrak has been as much a placeholder as a railroad: the company that would run the trains until the country started taking them seriously. Amtrak's struggles now look like "an opportunity disguised as a problem," says James P. RePass, who heads the National Corridors Initiative. The NCI, a coalition of businesses and citizens, organizes support for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor and other emerging projects (see map on the previous page). It wants train routes to be treated like highways, with 80 percent of their support coming from the federal government and the rest from the states. "Congress's past habit," RePass says, "has been to give Amtrak half of what it needs, and then blame it for not achieving its goals."

All this, of course, is being viewed through the prism of September 11, which has made it clear to lawmakers that highways, air travel, and railroads need to be equally viable, so that when one becomes unusable the others can fill the gap. "If a first-class national passenger rail system isn't an essential part of good homeland security, I don't know what is," says former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, Amtrak's acting chairman. "Up to now, we've been asked to run trains only on fumes and to build tracks with nickels. This is the year, finally, to get serious." Dukakis estimates that a national high-speed network, whether run by Amtrak or a cluster of mini-Amtraks, will by itself need annual capital investments of $2 billion to $3 billion for the next 20 years.

That amount is a bargain, relatively speaking. The $25 billion that Congress has invested in Amtrak since its founding in 1971 vanishes next to the $750 billion it has spent during this period on highways and air travel. But there has also been significant under-investment by the private freight railroads, which are expected to maintain their own property. The result: a nationwide diminution of speed and carrying capacity.

One investment has paid off splendidly. America's first high-speed train, the year-old Acela Express on the Northeast Corridor, is now constantly jammed; it cost less than $3 billion all told. Acela already operates in the black, and its success has accelerated interest in other high-speed projects. In the Pacific Northwest, says RePass, where Washington and Oregon are spending state money to build a high-speed corridor anchored by Seattle and Portland, their unlikely benefactor has been a libertarian think tank, the Discovery Institute. In Chicago, a liberal nonprofit law firm, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, is spearheading a nine-state high-speed effort for the Midwest that has already raised $40 million.

Money is one thing, vision is another. I gathered some train re-inventors on an Acela run between New York and Philadelphia to discuss the issues faced by the trains of the future. One of these is time. Anthony Perl, a political science professor at the University of Calgary and author of New Departures, a book about 21st-century trains, pointed out that railroads, the first large-scale undertaking of the Industrial Age, were organized along military lines—the only model then available. This brought with it uniforms and ranks, and placed passengers at the lowliest level. To this day, Perl said, "there's an unspoken assumption among transportation planners that travel is misery, so their essential task is to minimize travel time." But trains are ideally suited to enriching time—we were lounging around a big table over a late lunch, which we could never do on a bus or plane. Trains could add kids' playrooms, guest chefs, investment seminars; perhaps you could rent a DVD before you get on and return it when you get off.

Safety is another priority, according to Brent Oppenheimer, a principal of the design strategies firm OH&CO, who worked on both Acela and AVE, the Spanish high-speed train. "We have to assure people that they'll be taken care of, even in the worst possible circumstances," he says. "We need to make every train route a safe corridor, guaranteed and impregnable." He believes the federal government may need to be involved in railroad security to the same extent that it is in airport safety.Ronald J. Hartman, a former Amtrak vice president and now an executive with Yellow Transportation, which operates commuter bus lines around Washington, D.C., spoke of the railroads as regional lifelines: "Trains are the only logical way to get to nearby cities, the ones that are too far apart for driving and too close for flying, like Boston and New York. We don't know what will happen this year, but we know that people don't want to keep living the way they do now. All the projects people are fighting for would free up our now-choked 'middle distances.'"

I got off the train ready to get back on.