WASHINGTON — In 1958, an Interstate Commerce Commission report predicted that the passenger train would vanish by 1970, the victim of a traveling public whose affection had shifted to cars and airplanes.
But the passenger train refused to die.
More than 40 years later, Amtrak is still rolling along, even outlasting the federal agency that predicted the passenger train's demise. Its ridership is growing — up 37 percent from 2000 — and it has many friends in Congress and staunch allies in the White House.
"We're rediscovering the railroad mode," said Gil Carmichael, a former head of the Federal Railroad Administration and a prominent Republican supporter of Amtrak.
However, Amtrak has struggled for survival nearly every year since its first trains left the station on May 1, 1971. Now it's caught in the middle of the fight in Washington to cut federal budget deficits and spending. Some lawmakers want to eliminate it altogether. Others want to turn over pieces of its 22,000-mile network to private operators, an effort that some Amtrak supporters say could spell the end of the national passenger rail network.
Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida, the chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, introduced legislation in June to end what he calls Amtrak's "Soviet-style" monopoly on passenger trains and let private companies bid to operate its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, between Boston and Washington. Mica also thinks the private sector is better suited than Amtrak is to build a new high-speed rail line in the Northeast and operate its network of short- and long-distance corridors throughout the country.
"By giving the private sector the opportunity to bring its resources and expertise to the table, we can lower costs, increase efficiency and improve high-speed and intercity passenger rail service across the country," Mica said.
Several companies have expressed interest in bidding, including Britain's Virgin Trains and Veolia Transportation, which operates commuter rail systems in Boston and Miami.
"We'd be interested in any feasible project," Virgin Trains spokesman Arthur Leathley said.
However, these companies would have to negotiate with freight railroads for track access, and it's likely that they'd still require operating subsidies.
"It's going to be some time before we can eliminate these subsidies, but I think we can drive the subsidies down by having an efficient operator," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation Committee's railroads panel and a co-sponsor of Mica's bill.
Mica's proposal faces a tepid reception from Amtrak's supporters in the Democratic majority Senate.
"If there's a public-private partnership to help finance it, that's all right," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. "But the control has to rest, in my view, in the hands of those who represent the public. I'll fight as hard as I can to keep it that way."
Lautenberg is one of 19 senators who signed a letter to the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee requesting $2.2 billion for Amtrak in fiscal 2012.
In late August, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood committed nearly $750 million in federal grants to the Northeast Corridor, including money to rebuild tracks for future 186 mph trains and update the line's Depression-era electrical supply and signal systems.