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Rail News: Passenger Rail

Conversations continue, but Amtrak remains in limbo


Despite a "very productive discussion" between Amtrak’s board and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta late June 24, intercity passenger rail service — and those commuter rail services that depend on Amtrak — aren’t any closer to continuing service through July than they were June 21.

"We are working day to day to either secure a loan guarantee or a supplemental appropriation from Congress," says Karina VanVeen, Amtrak spokeswoman. "And until we announce a shutdown, we are going to continue operating our trains."

To Virginia Railway Express, that means regular service will continue at least throughout this week and next.

"If loan guarantees for Amtrak are not in place Friday, June 28, then the Amtrak board of directors will convene July 5 to discuss a shutdown scenario," said VRE officials, according to a prepared statement. "In this scenario, commuter operations would shut down last, allowing regular VRE service to continue through July 12."

On June 24, Mineta stated only that he is confident the Administration and Amtrak will be able to avoid a shutdown — although he didn’t offer any concrete suggestions on how that might be accomplished.

Instead, he stressed that the approach to Amtrak’s immediate cash crisis is two-fold.

"First, Amtrak must continue to search for ways to cut expenses, and to build on David Gunn’s initial efforts to get control of its finances," Mineta said. "At the same time, the federal government will continue to identify the best mix of options available to stabilize Amtrak’s short-term finances."

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wrote to Surface Transportation Board Chairman Linda Morgan expressing doubt that Amtrak would qualify under the letter of the statue for a Railroad Rehabilitation Infrastructure Financing loan or loan guarantee, and asking whether STB has "sufficient authority to direct the dispatching, maintenance, or other operations on the Northeast Corridor that would permit continued commuter operations, freight operations, or both in the event that Amtrak begins to cease operations on July 1."

Young requested an STB response by June 25.

Concurrently, Sens. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), John Breaux (D-La.), Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent President Bush a letter assuring him of their intent to work through conferees on the pending Supplemental Appropriations Bill to include a $205 million supplemental appropriation for Amtrak and seeking his support.

"In the wake of Sept. 11, we provided a $15 billion bailout to the airlines," wrote the senators. "We are asking you to support slightly more than 1 percent of that amount to keep passenger rail service alive in our country."

The senators also agreed with Bush that long-term passenger rail transportation policy must be addressed in the context of any long-term authorization, but stressed that "if Amtrak doesn’t receive the funds it needs in the near term, it will cease to exist."

"And we cannot ‘reform’ a dead railroad," they wrote.

Kathi Kube

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 6/25/2002