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Amtrak – A dire need: Plans, talk and money

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted February 21, 2005

Larry Kudlow of CNBC asked me if it were true that I did not advocate destroying Amtrak but wanted to reform it. I plead guilty. I am pro-rail.

AmtrakI believe we demonstrated after 9/11 that it is prudent to have a national passenger rail system. However, Amtrak is spiraling toward death. The Administration has recommended not a dime.

In Ronald Reagan's budget Amtrak was also zeroed out. Back then the President knew full well that Congress would restore the money. It was one of those "wink-winks" which take place in Washington. Reagan satisfied a part of his conservative constituency by pretending to be against Amtrak funding while his Office of Management and Budget (OMB) people planned for the restoration of the money.

I probed the Deputy Director of OMB as to how serious the Bush Administration is about not funding Amtrak. Specifically, I asked him if the Congress restored the Amtrak money, would he recommend a veto to the President, assuming a separate Transportation Appropriations Bill had been passed by the Congress. (Reagan always excused himself on the Amtrak issue by pointing out that Congress sent him what is known as a "CR," a Continuing Resolution, wherein several appropriations bills are rolled into one. He felt he could not veto the Continuing Resolution without endangering the nation's defense). OMB Deputy Director Joel David Kaplan said he was not in a position to recommend a veto. He finally showed the hand he was dealing the Congress when he said, "We have laid out reforms three years in a row. Congress has ignored these reforms. If they will consider and enact reforms we might look at restoring some money."

That view was confirmed by Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta, who in response to a question from our Free Congress Adjunct Scholar Tom Till, said, "Enact the reforms and then we'll talk money."

As usual, the media has set up the choice of continuing the status quo vs. zeroing out all funding for Amtrak. That is not, in fact, the only choice. There is zeroing out funding vs. passing reforms and restoring money.

Among the reforms which we at the Amtrak Reform Council advocated, and which were picked up by the Administration, is to create two separate corporations. One would own the infrastructure now owned by Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor from Washington D.C. to New York City and also New Haven, CT to Boston as well as a 70-mile stretch in Michigan. That corporation would be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the property owned by Amtrak. In addition, it would assist the freight railroads for that portion of the system now leased to Amtrak. Under such a system the Commuter Rail lines, which run many more trains over the Corridor then does Amtrak, would have to pay their fair share of upkeep. A second corporation would only run passenger trains.

Presently, because Amtrak is involved in so many businesses, it is not possible to find out exactly what it costs to operate a given train.

The second corporation would have as its only responsibility ownership and operation of trains. That would allow us to know the cost of running trains, and the corporation could husband cash flow by engaging in lease-back contracts. Former Amtrak Reform Council member Jim Coston has set up a company for that purpose. Such a corporation could also outsource food and beverage and other services which would benefit the private sector, which almost always runs things more efficiently than the government.

A new set of corporations might be able renegotiate Amtrak's union agreements, which are hand-me-downs from the freight railroads from which Amtrak originally inherited passenger trains.

It is almost ludicrous to suggest that a two-and-a-half trillion dollar budget is "austere and tight". Only by Washington standards. The truth is, with Social Security and tax reform in the offing and the prescription drug benefit about to kick in, money is in unusually short supply. Sooner or later if things just keep going as they have been money isn't going to be there for Amtrak. The Administration's proposal would leave Amtrak intact in only the Northeast Corridor.

That was former Senator Phil Gramm's secret plan to kill Amtrak, as he explained it to me several years ago. Decouple the Northeast Corridor from the rest of Amtrak and the national passenger train system dies. I am not sure in view of the impending bankruptcy of many of the older airlines and the nationwide shutdown of all airlines after 9/11 that we want to be without an alternative to carry passengers throughout the country.

In fact, the real role of rail should be in the 300 to 500-mile corridors which have been identified by the Department of Transportation. There are 15 such corridors. The airlines find serving these relatively short trips very inefficient. We should encourage the development of these corridors to have frequent, higher speed service.

Currently the highest speed passenger trains outside the Northeast Corridor go is 79 miles per hour. For a time it appeared that Chicago-St. Louis would be the first such semi-high speed corridor. Track and signal systems were being upgraded. The current three trains per day were to be increased. New equipment, capable of operating at up to 110 m.p.h., was to be purchased. But state administrations change and priorities change as well. It appears that the effort to demonstrate this first corridor outside of the Northeast has been sidelined.

Perhaps if Congress does get serious about passing the reforms recommended by the Bush Administration, work on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor will resume. If several of these corridors can one day be connected through-running passenger trains could be considered again. If Western passenger trains are discontinued perhaps a private operator could take up operating some of these trains at least as "land cruises". One such train operates in Canada.

If President Bush is serious about getting the reforms and Congress fails to act, then Bush will have to veto the Transportation Appropriations Bill and insist that no money be forthcoming for Amtrak until the reforms are enacted.

For an Administration that did not veto a single bill in its entire first term, it is a real stretch to think that its very first veto is going to be over Amtrak. Unless that threat is real there will be no action and we will be back to square one. There will be just enough money to operate but not enough to do what Amtrak President Dave Gunn says needs to be done. Who wants to continue the same old game? 

Paul Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation, Inc.

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