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November 13, 2005

John Tierney: The Troll on the Tracks.

This shows you how out of touch I am with some parts of American politics. John Tierney writes about Amtrack and how the current proposals would be to make it into something more like a train operating company, as with the current UK set up, rather than an integrated manager of the infrastructure and the trains.

Me, I thought they’d put it out of its misery years ago.

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Amtrak's president was fired this week, which was good
news for those of us who love trains and want a
reformer in charge of the railroad. Yet members of
Congress along the Northeast Corridor immediately
denounced the firing.

One obvious reason is that these politicians are
indebted to Amtrak's unions, which want no part of
reform. But there also seems to be a more baffling
reason. Northeastern politicians actually like the
railroad the way it is. After being held captive for
decades by Amtrak, they're suffering from the
Stockholm syndrome.

Before he was fired, David Gunn ran Amtrak according
to the same principles of his predecessors. Amtrak was
created to be a for-profit private corporation, but it
instead went into the red by running unprofitable
long-distance trains while stinting on service and
maintenance for the Northeast Corridor, the route that
makes the most economic sense.

When the White House or Congress balked at covering
the annual losses, Gunn and his predecessors resorted
to extortion. They ritually set a date and threatened
to shut down Amtrak at midnight if the ransom wasn't
paid.

It has always been a powerful threat, but not because
the nation depends on Amtrak's trains. They're about
as vital to America's transportation system as
horse-drawn carriages are to New York's. Amtrak's
share of the intercity travel market has been falling
for half a century and is now less than half of 1
percent.

No, what makes the threat powerful is the chokehold
that Amtrak has on other railroads. Commuter trains,
which carry nearly 20 times as many passengers as
Amtrak does, would be crippled by an Amtrak shutdown
in the many cities where they use tracks and stations
owned by Amtrak, including New York and much of the
Northeast, as well as Chicago and San Francisco.
Thanks to its power to strand hundreds of thousands of
commuters, Amtrak is the troll on the tracks.

Los Angeles and Boston used to be hostage to Amtrak's
annual threats because it operated their commuter
trains, but they had the sense to free themselves by
switching to other operators. You'd think Northeastern
politicians would yearn for similar relief, but
they've rebuffed the White House's offers.

The Bush administration proposed disarming Amtrak by
giving away its tracks and stations in the Northeast
Corridor to a new public agency, run by the states.
While Amtrak stuck to running trains, this new agency
would get money from Washington to rehabilitate the
tracks neglected by Amtrak, and then the tracks would
eventually be open to other railroads, too.

This is hardly a radical idea for transportation. The
Northeast Corridor tracks, instead of being an Amtrak
fief, could be like a highway or an airport: a
regional public facility used by a variety of public
and private carriers. Amtrak and other railroads would
compete to run passenger trains, maybe with the help
of further subsidies from taxpayers, although an
efficient railroad might well be able to operate
profitably.

It's difficult, of course, to imagine Amtrak ever
turning a profit at anything. Even though it has a
captive audience of customers for meals and drinks
aboard the trains, it collects only $1 in revenue for
every $2 that it spends on its food service, according
to a new report by the Government Accountability
Office. The report forecast that the railroad's
operating losses would increase by 40 percent in the
next four years.

Gunn, brought in as a turnaround expert, was fired by
Bush appointees on the Amtrak board. They criticized
him for inept management and reluctance to pursue
their plan to make the Northeast Corridor an
independent entity. The firing was immediately
questioned by senators like Tom Carper of Delaware and
Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York.

Carper called the firing ''further proof that the Bush
administration doesn't want Amtrak to succeed.''
Schumer made the same point: ''The policy difference
is that the board wants to kill Amtrak, and Gunn wants
it to prosper. It's that simple.''

Well, he's right about it being a simple policy
difference. The Bush administration, in an unexpected
bit of benevolence toward voters in blue states, is
trying to rebuild the Northeast Corridor, improve
service and remove Amtrak's power to shut down the
system. The senators along the corridor are focused
strictly on protecting Amtrak. They've been held
hostage so long they can't imagine life without their
captor.

November 13, 2005 in Politics | Permalink

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