ON FEBRUARY 7 the Bush government published the federal budget for 2006. Described as an austerity spending plan, it suggests that road and transit spending be cut by more than 3% to $59·5bn.

Much of the reduction would come at the expense of Amtrak, which is allocated no funding next year compared to $1·2bn in 2005. ’After 34 years of Amtrak operating losses and $29bn in taxpayer subsidies, it is clear that the current model of passenger rail service is flawed and unsustainable’, said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. But the budget would make available $360m to support Northeast Corridor commuter operations should Amtrak shut down.

The government admits it is trying to force Amtrak into bankruptcy as part of what Mineta described as ’a call to action’ for Congress. ’On its current course, Amtrak’s performance will decline and its infrastructure will deteriorate even with well over $1bn in annual federal appropriations. With no subsidies, Amtrak would quickly enter bankruptcy, which would likely lead to the elimination of inefficient operations. Ultimately, a more rational passenger rail system would emerge.’

The scenario would see Amtrak split into a private infrastructure company and a train operating company. The government would lease the Northeast Corridor to a body made up of states along the route which would manage both infrastructure and train service. Elsewhere, agreements between states and freight railways would ’lead to the development of short-corridor routes between major population centers’, with the states receiving operating subsidies and issuing tenders for infrastructure maintenance backed by federal grants.

The budget has yet to be approved by Congress, and there is little indication that the Amtrak proposal will garner widespread support. Democrat Jim Oberstar of Minnesota has promised that it will be ’a test of wills’, and the word is that Amtrak may well continue to eke out a miserable existence on annual grants.