Bustle is not the word that comes to mind at Amtrak's Salt Lake City station.

In fact it's downright dead at the downtown stop on most afternoons, when a closed sign hangs in the window and customers are invited to return at 5:15 p.m.Or the next morning, when insomniacs can come down and buy a ticket at 3 a.m. if they want to.

The odd hours help explain why the Desert Wind from Chicago to Los Angeles will whistle through Utah only thrice weekly instead of every day once Amtrak cuts much of its service around the country beginning Feb. 1.

Reasons the nation's heavily subsidized railroad is failing are abundantly clear in Utah, where inconveniently timed trains and raging airfare wars make it cheaper, simpler and less tiring to take a plane.

There are only two Amtrak departure hours out of Salt Lake City - 5:30 a.m. and half past midnight. With upstart air carriers like Southwest and Vanguard airlines competing today with mainstay Delta Air Lines, travelers can go round trip almost anyplace in the West for less than the $88 a train ticket costs to cities like Seattle, Las Vegas, Denver or San Francisco. And air departures generally occur during typical waking hours.

Thus the steady decline in local Amtrak ridership, which numbered about 69,000 in 1992, dropped to 60,000 last year and in 1994 will total about 54,000, according to the railroad's Washington office.

"Most of the time we've found that when we priced Amtrak to go most places it took usually two days and was just as expensive if not more expensive," said Tiffany Croft, a travel agent at Crossroads Travel Inc. Croft said two kinds of people make up the bulk of Amtrak passengers: Those afraid to fly and "college-age students who thought it might be less and had all the time in the world."

Alan Clawson, vice president of Clawson Travel, said Amtrak's trouble has mostly to do with with the pace of life in 20th-century America.

"We live in such a rush-rush world that they're just not fast enough," said Clawson, who suggested that if Amtrak were to more aggressively market the romance of trains - "create a throwback to the '20s and '30s when they had dinner cars and it was a fancy deal" - the passenger line might recapture some of the leisure-travel market.

"I don't think they'll ever get back the business traveler or people wanting to take quick vacations. We're all in too much of a hurry."

But optimism persists.

"Because Amtrak made these cuts, it's going to be easier to defend," said Ross Capon, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Railroad Passengers, a 12,000-member group that advocates public support of passenger rails.

Capon predicted Amtrak will somehow survive in the near future, gradually gaining more ridership as aging airline fleets force major new aircraft purchases that will drive airfares up. The inevitable escalation of gasoline prices will also force travelers to look at alternatives to automobiles, he said.

Though he conceded ridership is off, Capon blamed failing interest in Amtrak in the 1990s on the railroad-hampering Midwest floods of 1993 and on new no-smoking rules aboard trains. He said Amtrak's "more businesslike approach" in 1995 will "help win the confidence of Congress and maintain some degree of competition with those airlines slitting each others throats."

Still, Amtrak service through Utah might get worse before it gets better.

In addition to the Desert Wind, two other major lines serve the Salt Lake area - the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco and the Pioneer from Denver to Seattle. With the Pioneer already a three-times-a-week train and the Desert Wind slated to be similarly downgraded, it might only be a matter of time before the Zephyr is curtailed, too, according to Howard Robertson, a Washington spokesman for Amtrak.

When the agency's board of directors meets again in January, said Robertson, it will look at where else to cut "and will possibly make further reductions in service, and that will affect the California Zephyr."

*****

Additional Information

By train, by plane

Round-trip fare comparison

SALT LAKE CITY TO: AMTRAK* AIR**

Seattle $88-238 $78-118

San Francisco/Oakland $88-220 $58-118

Denver $116-218 $90-159

Las Vegas $88-178 $38-118

*Price varies depending on dates and departure times

** Southwest, Delta and Vanguard