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Rail News: Passenger Rail

Weighing in on Amtrak Reform Council's proposals


Amtrak Reform Council didn’t drop any bombs Feb. 7 when it presented Congress its recommendations for Amtrak’s restructuring. In the days since, responses to ARC’s proposals have been as expected, too.

As was the national passenger railroad’s response issued Feb. 7, which stated that officials agree "the current policy model for passenger rail does not work, cannot work and must be fixed."

However, the statement goes on to place blame for its failures at Congress’ feet and downplays Amtrak management’s role for the railroad’s current state: "It is also important to recognize that we have a policy problem, not an Amtrak performance problem. Under current management over the last five years, Amtrak’s total revenues have grown by 38 percent and a nationwide ridership has risen by 19 percent, while federal operating support has been cut by more than 80 percent."

Amtrak’s view, however, seems to be in the minority.

Many other interested parties have entered their opinions; mostly agreeing with some parts and disagreeing with others.

Rail labor, for instance, agrees with several recommendations — especially regarding passenger rails’ need for additional funding regardless of which company might provide the service.

"I urge Congress to reject ARC and its work, and instead appropriate at least $1.2 billion for fiscal-year 2003 to finally give Amtrak and its 25,000 workers a chance to succeed," said Sonny Hall, AFL-CIO transportation trades department president.

Similarly, United Transportation Union International President Byron Boyd Jr. suggests major freight railroad executives should hold a summit with assistance from federal officials and congressional leaders.

"We would then map out a viable means to provide this nation with safe, efficient and convenient intercity rail passenger service that does not interfere with freight railroad operations," said Boyd. "And we’d put a realistic price tag on the result."

Charles Moneypenny, ARC’s rail labor representative, submitted to Congress his dissenting opinion with ARC’s report. While he agrees that workers should be protected if and when another carrier takes over Amtrak’s operations, he also supports ARC’s call for more funds — even for long-distance trains.

He doesn’t, however, agree with separating Northeast Corridor infrastructure from train operations — mainly, it seems, because the states through which NEC runs strongly requested infrastructure and operations stay connected.

Another ARC member, Wendell Cox, concurred with ARC’s recommendations, but suggested they don’t go far enough.

"Reform of Amtrak’s dysfunctional organizational and political structure is a prerequisite to both the operational self-sufficiency required by national policy and the improvement of passenger rail," he said in his concurring statement submitted with ARC’s proposals. "The Action Plan represents too timid a departure from the present structure."

Cox believes that providing National Passenger Rail Corp. authority to franchise services — even to its own subsidiary, the Amtrak operating company — would result in the operating company exerting its influence through NRPC and the political processes to "skew franchise awards in their direction or even to prevent franchising."

Similarly, ARC member S. Lee Kling urged Congress to "seriously consider eliminating political involvement and allow decisions to be made on what best makes operational sense."

"A national rail system is in our national interest, and needs to be adequately funded, but without political influence on day-to-day operational aspects," he said.

Midwest High-Speed Rail Coalition, too, agrees with ARC’s report in calling for change, but Executive Director Rick Harnish suggested some additional improvements including expanding Federal Railroad Administration’s role in setting policy and funding for interstate rail; a new regulatory environment that would allow competition and encourage the development of private rail operators; new and meaningful performance measures; transparency of Amtrak’s accounting of revenue and costs; and dramatic funding increases for infrastructure.

A fourth ARC member, James Coston, also concurred with ARC’s report, but retained "serious reservations about and even objections to several of its central elements."

Primarily, Coston believes Amtrak’s mandate was "Mission: Impossible" from the start, and that Congress never has funded the railroad anywhere near an appropriate level. But he doesn’t see government ownership as a primary problem. Using the British rail privatization for comparison’s sake, Coston stressed that U.S. and British rail infrastructures have been neglected — regardless of ownership.

But Coston believes most of the blame for Amtrak’s failures rests on its own shoulders.

"Amtrak is organizationally, intellectually and financially bankrupt and ultimately obsolete as currently configured," he said, adding that the railroad’s funds are dwindling so quickly that a system-wide shutdown can be avoided only by immediate reform.

"It is too late to wait for the Ideal Plan to emerge," said Coston. "Something must be done to change the way passenger trains are run in this country now."

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 2/12/2002