Amtrak's dangerous route Strike deadline: Money-losing passenger railroad faces union demands it cannot meet and Republican effort to end federal subsidies.

October 29, 1997

AMTRAK, this nation's only passenger railroad, faces a bleak future. It lost $83 million last year and anticipates losing another $100 million this year. Republicans in Congress want to phase out federal subsidies. A labor union threatens to strike next week unless its wage demand is met.

There is no consensus in Congress on what to do about the railroad, which carries 60,000 intercity passengers in the Northeast daily.

Some $2.3 billion for badly needed capital improvements was tucked into the balanced-budget accord, but it can't be touched until Congress implements management and labor reforms. Labor's Democratic friends, including the Clinton administration, won't abide that. They also are fighting Republican efforts to privatize Amtrak: A House bill to end federal subsidies in 2001 collapsed on the House floor.

Meanwhile, a strike looms next week after a cooling-off period failed to yield a labor settlement. One of Amtrak's unions demands 3 percent increases annually for five years.

That wage demand would give Amtrak's track and maintenance employees parity with freight railroad workers. But Amtrak doesn't have the money. It also would open the door for other Amtrak unions to demand equal treatment. Where is Amtrak supposed to get the $442 million for these higher wages?

From Congress -- and taxpayers -- of course. That's the way it used to work. No longer. Republican leaders are adamant the $2.3 billion set aside for capital improvements cannot be diverted to pay salaries. There is no sentiment among GOP leaders to help the Clinton administration curry favor with the unions, either.

Given Amtrak's precarious financial situation, it is difficult to sympathize with union demands. A company flirting with bankruptcy cannot responsibly consider higher wages for its employees. What is needed now is common-sense give-and-take union leaders. Pushing Amtrak over the cliff won't help anyone.

Nor should Republicans insist on privatization. A smaller, on-going federal subsidy may be the only viable option, coupled with future capital investments by Washington. Amtrak provides necessary service for American travelers. It will take contributions from Congress and from the unions to keep the railroad on track and operating into the next century.

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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