Tied to the Rails

September 18, 1995

Remember that silent movie scene where the villain ties the fair-haired damsel to the rails while a train barrels down the tracks? Suddenly, America's only passenger rail service, Amtrak, finds itself in just such a cliff-hanger. Unless Congress and rail labor unions reach agreement, Amtrak could be forced to shut down Oct. 1.

The current sticking point: a quarrel over severance provisions in an Amtrak reform bill that might impact on private freight railroads. Everyone thought a deal had been struck with labor leaders to allow Amtrak to contract out certain work and reduce severance protection. But then labor lawyers objected, claiming the language would also apply to 200,000 unionized freight railroad workers. That has jeopardized the entire reform package.

What gives the matter urgency is that budget money for Amtrak is contingent upon approval of a reform bill. No reform, no money.

Amtrak did not need this complication. The railroad is struggling. Until this labor dispute surfaced, it looked good for continued federal aid, though at a considerably reduced level.

Most legislators agree Amtrak needs more flexible work rules and less costly layoff restrictions. Already this year, the railroad has cut 20 percent of its work force, 15 percent of its route miles and let state governments take over some other routes. Sharp federal cuts mean future reductions.

While sentiment to eliminate Amtrak's subsidy sounds grand in theory, no intercity passenger railroad is profitable. There's no proof Amtrak can be privatized -- and no clamor from the private sector. Congress' own experts say Amtrak needs $4 billion to modernize. That part of the problem is being ignored.

Compromise is imperative. The Amtrak reform bill should be focused strictly on helping Amtrak so the railroad can continue service. Cutting the ropes holding the damsel to the railroad tracks must get top priority. The train is rapidly approaching. No one wins if the damsel perishes.

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