By Barbara Kessler

It’s refreshing in these days of gas and environmental calamities, not to mention lending and budget crises, to hear about something that’s chugging along in a positive direction.

That’s the story of Amtrak, or nearly so, at this junction. Ridership on the American passenger rail service is up a healthy 14 percent compared to this time last year, and is on pace to hit an all-time annual record of 28 million passengers in fiscal 2008.

Trains are whisking folks around in the busiest “Northeast Corridor” (DC to Boston) faster than ever, and people across the nation are flocking to inter-city train travel, a mode of transportation less polluting per passenger than both cars and planes. Amtrak seems right for the times and primed for expansion.

“Ridership is through the roof! Let’s get on with it,” announced Amtrak CEO Alexander Kummant at a transportation summit in Irving, Texas, last week, where he came well prepared to make the case for more Amtrak.

Tossing up a series of charts and graphs during a presentation to fellow transportation officials and business leaders, he showed the audience that train travel spirals upward in an almost dead even correlation with gas prices. Yes, our pain is Amtrak’s gain, and one can reasonably conclude that if high gas prices stick with us, as predicted, train ridership will boom.

And as more people wiggle out of their personal gasoline predicaments, trains could become ever more popular, given the leap to trains preceded gasoline hitting $4 a gallon, Kummant noted.

Furthermore, a review of the ridership shows that it is not just straining the tracks in the busy rail-savvy “Northeast Corridor,” but has increased nearly everywhere. July 2008 ridership figures show increases over July 2007 for the Texas Eagle’s San Antonio to Chicago route (up 30 percent); the Coast Starlight (Seattle to Los Angeles; up 28 percent); the Kansas City to St. Louis route (up 57 percent); and the Hiawatha (Chicago to Milwaukee; up 38 percent).

So it’s all good. Except that it’s not: Amtrak’s trains are full, but the national network is unprepared to handle more passengers.

Chronically under-funded to the point of near insolvency a few years ago, Amtrak is reaching a tipping point where it cannot take on new business because it lacks reserve cars to pull on line and also is hemmed in by lines it shares with freight trains.

Operating under tight budgets for years, and jeered by perennial critics who argue that the national train system (which traditionally operates in the red) should not even receive subsidies, Amtrak has been unable to refurbish retired cars or build new ones. The service’s infrastructure, including the depots and track that it largely shares with commercial railroads, badly needs modernizing. Many supporters believe that “double track” routes should be installed to allow Amtrak the ability to expand alongside existing lines and provide more flexible, rider-friendly service, but these lines would be expensive and subject to high local taxes.

And so, just as the demand for rail travel, ridership and gas prices conspire to create what Kummant terms a “perfect storm” of opportunity for Amtrak, the doppelganger of Amtrak Past haunts the future.

How to change that picture? Kummant cites one thing as absolutely necessary, both in his speech to transportation officials and in remarks afterward. He would desperately like Congress to give Amtrak multi-year funding, instead of piecemeal year-by-year appropriations, so it can hire, plan and strategize like any other business.

His ask is moderate compared to funding for other transportation: $1 billion a year for each of the next 10 years.

He asked this year, but was denied. “A bitter pill,” he says, in face of the potential.

“It’s incredibly easy to argue that Amtrak should double in size over the next 10 years, given everything that’s going on,” he says.

And possibly incredibly hard to make that happen. Whether Congress is letting American train potential go unrealized because it doesn’t care, is procedurally balled up (Kummant’s view) or is just better geared to subsidizing plane and car travel, has become almost academic. The bottom line is that public policy since Amtrak’s inception in 1970 is clear, the system is on a short leash — or as its supporters see it, riding a vicious cycle of too-little funding that causes it to be less profitable, which creates an argument for less funding.