THREE SEPARATE bills were introduced into the US Congress on April 14, offering widely-different prospects for the future of the US passenger rail network.

The government’s Passenger Rail Investment Reform Act proposes to hand responsibility for various routes to individual states while converting Amtrak into a private-sector train operator. `This legislation is a lifeline to a dying railroad’, said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, suggesting that market competition will improve efficiency and cut costs.

The states would decide service levels and call competitive tenders for contracts to operate each route. The winning bidders would be given access to the tracks of the private freight railways where necessary, a power now available exclusively to Amtrak.

Many critics inside and outside Congress believe the cash-strapped states are in no position to take on the financial burden of passenger rail operations, and that the bill will ultimately lead to the closure of most routes. A widely-supported bill was introduced into the House of Representatives to give Amtrak what the Republican Chairman of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Don Young, called ’a window of opportunity for a last-chance turnaround.’ HR1630 would give Amtrak $2bn for capital and operating expenses in each of the next three financial years.

Young is also co-sponsor of the Railroad Infrastructure Development & Expansion Act for the 21st Century, which was also introduced to the House of Representatives on April 14. RIDE 21 would authorise $60bn to fund investment for high speed rail and infrastructure projects over a 10-year period.

’States will select and design their own corridors, and choose whether to use steel-wheel or maglev trains’, explained Young. The legislation would modify the existing Swift Rail Development Act, and change the emphasis from technology to corridor development. Grants could be used to fund the acquisition of locomotives, passenger coaches, track and signalling equipment.

Alas, the next day saw a setback for high speed proponents when Amtrak suspended Acela Express services between Boston, New York and Washington DC, after cracks were found in disc brake spokes on several of the 20 trains during an FRA inspection to determine whether the Acelas could be operated at higher speeds on curved track between Trenton and Newark, New Jersey.

Amtrak said cracks had been found in about 300 of 1 440 brake assemblies, but there had been no in-service brake failures. It was able to cannibalise enough parts to get one set back into service between New York and Washington on April 18.