Restructure plan sought for Amtrak

Proposal could mean end of long-distance routes


A top transportation official in the Bush administration proposed a national rail plan yesterday that would drastically restructure the long-suffering national rail carrier as a for-profit corporation. The proposal could mean the end of Amtrak's long-distance rail routes.

Under the plan announced by Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson before the Senate Commerce Committee, funding of Amtrak's money-losing long-distance routes would become less dependent on federal sources and more dependent on a combination of federal, state and private funding.

Passenger rail advocates say that such changes would probably curtail many national rail routes and could cut national rail service from 48 states to 21.

"The comment that the states are going to fund the long-distance routes is a polite way of saying let's get rid of the long-distance routes," said Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Jackson also suggested establishing a federal-state group to split off and oversee the popular Northeast Rail Corridor. The Northeast Corridor Compact would be funded by federal grants and have the authority to fund capital projects along the popular rail corridor stretching from Washington to Boston.

At the same time, Jackson suggested making Amtrak a for-profit company that would contract with the new entity to run trains in the corridor.

He said the administration will probably issue more specific proposed changes in about two months. Still, he said, changes must be made.

"Amtrak's core business design suffers from structural rot," he said. "For decades, the federal government has embraced perverse incentives that consistently impel Amtrak to make irrational business decisions."

While Amtrak serves a valuable role in the nation's transportation system, the states it serves should have more say and more fiscal responsibility for that service, he said.

But in the end, the states would bear more responsibility for rail funding when state spending on transportation is being cut back nationwide.

Jackson's plan contrasts sharply with a plan released last week by Amtrak that concentrates on fixing much of the rail system's antiquated infrastructure and freezing new rail services nationwide.

"The word `reform' is like catnip to those interested in a quick fix to Amtrak," said Amtrak's president, David Gunn. "It's going to take years to reach a conclusion, and meanwhile the ties are still rotting."

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