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Amtrak is staging a comeback. And Congress, after decades of treating the rails like an ugly stepsister of highways and airports, has finally hopped on board.

Cobbled from the remnants of the nation's private passenger rail systems in 1971, the long-suffering Amtrak is racking up record numbers of riders as soaring air fares and gas prices drive motorists back to the rails, particularly in high-density inter-city corridors.

A record 25.8 million passengers boarded Amtrak trains in the past fiscal year, and the national rail carrier has heralded its best May ever, with ridership up 12 percent and revenue up 16 percent over the same month last year. Success has not gone unnoticed.

The nation's growing appetite for passenger rail service, coupled with a growing environmental awareness, has encouraged Congress to set Amtrak's table for the next five years.

In a veto-proof 311-104 vote last week that mimics a Senate decision late last year, the U.S. House wisely pumped $15 billion into the national rail system, allowing for capital improvements and providing operating funds for the heavily-subsidized service through fiscal year 2013.

While cross-country service will continue - Amtrak serves 500 destinations in 46 states - the House turned a switch and sent passenger rail service barrelling in new directions.

The bill provides about $500 million in each of the next five years for grants to allow states to contract with Amtrak to expand or establish rail service between cities. It also instructs the federal Department of Transportation to seek proposals from private firms to establish rapid rail service between New York City and Washington, the nation's first foray into high-speed rail.

While Amtrak may never achieve profitability - worldwide, nearly all passenger rail systems require government subsidies - Congress has made a worthwhile investment. Energy-efficient passenger rail service reduces gridlock on highways and taxiways, cuts pollution, combats global warming and helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil. And the introduction of high-speed service could help launch a renaissance in domestic rail travel.

For reasons that go far beyond nostalgia, passenger rail service must become an increasingly significant part of our transportation mix.