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Amtrak – oficially known as The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (NPRC) – started business on May 1, 1971 when Clocker No. 235 departed New York Penn Station at 12:05 a.m. bound for Philadelphia. History columnist John Kelly examines Amtrak's formation and its first year in operation.

All railroads that operated passenger trains when the new law (Railroad Passenger Service Act) was signed had until May 1, 1971 to become members of the NRPC, or continue to run their own passenger trains. The NRPC membership price was either cash, or passenger equipment/services based on half the road’s passenger losses for the last full year of operation (1970), or purchase of common stock in the new company. The biggest advantage to joining NRPC was of course, relief from the financial burden of maintaining passenger service.

Ever since Amtrak has been burdened by its own financial troubles. Here's the corporation's 16-page financial report for 2000, along with the National Transportation Statistics for 2000 from the Bureau of Transportation. Amtrak reportedly lost $21 billion in its first 30 years of operation, but it has pinned its hopes for a brighter future on the promise of high speed trains.

There is no end of people and groups who want to reform Amtrak. The Amtrak Reform Council, an independent federal commission established in 1997, offers a chart that shows the ups and downs of Amtrak ridership over the past 20 years. The ARC also looks at other railroad models around the world, along with suggestions on which options would be best for Amtrak.

A number of conservative think-tanks have pointed their muzzles at Amtrak over the years. In 1998, The Reason Foundation argued in favor of privitization before a Congressional sub-committee, saying it would greatly improve both operation performance and the bottom line. More recently the Heritage Foundation said it's time to introduce market-based reforms that "would allow the system to maintain the maximum number of viable routes by substantially reducing costs and increasing revenues."

"Amtrak's management knows better than anyone else how financially troubled the company is and has spent much of the previous year seeking larger subsidies--an effort which included such questionable antics as posing as a victim of terrorism in order to extract more money from Congress. To its credit, Congess has not yet granted larger subsidies to Amtrak, in spite of the introduction of numerous legislative proposals to provide greater funding."

Amtrak also has its fans. The SaveAmtrak site shows how the Web has enabled people to contribute in a way impossible before the introduction of the Internet. The site champions the cause of Amtrak, calls its acolytes to arms over proposed cutbacks, offers commentaries, blasts Amtrak opponents, even allows visitors to download a "Save Amtrak" poster.

The National Corridors Intiative boasts a regular newsletter about tranportation issues and Amtrak. In an open letter to "American journalists' editor Jim RePass argues that Amtrak needs more, not less. money.

"When Amtrak does get a chunk of money, we have seen great things. After more than 20 years of struggle, the Northeast Corridor was finally electrified to Boston, and new trains - the Acela Express - were purchased. The result has been a runaway success, despite basic rail infrastructure needs which have still not been met."

Some of the pro-Amtrak sites feature more personal tributes. Andy's Amtrak Photos offers pictures of, what else, Amtrak trains, both locomotives and passenger cars. And Amtrak may only have been around for 30 years, but it already has it's own historial society.

By the way, if you're more of a train enthusiast than an Amtrak supporter, you definitely need to visit, without a doubt the most comprehensive train site in this or any other galaxy. Get the latest news on trains, see photos, chat in forums - you'll even find links to help you book tickets. Perhaps the most intriguing section of is travelogues. You'll find hundreds of them. Train travel, like baseball, seems to be a pastime with a pace perfect for writers.

Train travel is also closely tied to American history and its growth as a country. PBS's American Experience looks at one small part of this history in "Steamliners - America's Lost Trains." The site also presents a timeline that covers passenger rail travel from 1830 (when there were 23 miles of track in the entire country) to 1980 and the passing of The Staggers Act, which allowed railroads to function competively.

Copyright © 2002 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.