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Amtrak supporters voice opinions on Gunn's termination

During the past month, Amtrak has remained in the headlines. The national passenger railroad attracted coverage for its plan to create a Northeast Corridor subsidiary, the Senate’s approval of a $1.45 billion fiscal-year 2006 Amtrak appropriation and reform bill, and the Government Accountability Office’s report criticizing Amtrak’s business practices. Now, Amtrak has grabbed its biggest headline by firing President and Chief Executive Officer David Gunn.

Yesterday, the board terminated Gunn — who came out of retirement in May 2002 to take Amtrak’s reins — to install a new leader board members believe can “intensify the pace and broaden the scope of reforms.”

The news outraged many Amtrak supporters, who voiced concerns that the board fired Gunn to carry out the Bush Administration’s Amtrak reform proposals — which Gunn and the administration have clashed on, and critics say would destroy the railroad. A number of Amtrak observers also are questioning the legitimacy of the board action since the seven-member body currently has four members and only one — chairman David Laney — has been confirmed by the Senate.

“[The] decision to fire David Gunn is wrong, ill-advised and further proof that the Bush Administration doesn’t want Amtrak to succeed,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) in a prepared statement.

Carper noted that just last week, the Senate adopted the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2005, showing they support “meaningful and thoughtful Amtrak reform.”

“It’s unfortunate that the administration, through the board, would rather play games with Amtrak’s management than engage Congress on how to make Amtrak stronger,” he said.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) also believes the firing came at a bad time.

“Amtrak has overcome significant problems and begun to gain forward momentum. Changing the top leadership jeopardizes that progress,” said NARP President George Chilson, adding that the association is concerned that Gunn’s termination “is the first step in an effort to kill the rail passenger business.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) agrees.

“The Amtrak board of directors has become a front for the Bush Administration and Amtrak opponents,” he said. “The firing of David Gunn is another backdoor attempt to dismantle the railroad.”

To Friends of the Earth, there is no compelling reason for the termination.

“The decision to fire David Gunn begs the question of whose interest the board is serving – the riders or the Bush administration’s?” said Transportation Policy Coordinator Colin Peppard. “With Amtrak finally making real progress with needed reforms, it makes no sense to fire an experienced, qualified leader with a track record of success. As we have seen recently, a willingness to act as the president’s yes-man is often more important than real qualifications or experience.”

Meanwhile, Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish believes it will be difficult to find a replacement for Gunn given the administration’s intercity passenger-rail policies — or lackthereof.

“Americans should not allow the administration’s excessive focus on Amtrak management to obscure its own long-standing failure to develop a sound federal transportation policy,” he said. “Fussing with the organizational chart is just a distraction. Absent meaningful mobility policy, the funding and leadership to support it, Amtrak will continue to endure the futile exercise of periodic management turnovers.”

While Amtrak supporters protested Gunn’s termination, U.S. Department of Transportation officials said they support the firing and will back Amtrak as it works improve service, upgrade infrastructure and establish new fiscal accountability measures.

“I am confident in the board’s judgment and its belief that different leadership is needed to address the serious challenges facing the company,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 11/10/2005