Derailing Amtrak

March 15, 2004

FINANCIALLY starved and neglected for most of its history, Amtrak is finally showing modest signs of bouncing back. After its most recent brush with bankruptcy in the summer of 2002, the rail system is getting its house in order thanks to a no-nonsense CEO and president, David L. Gunn. Ridership is up and maintenance of its aging tracks and equipment is much improved, particularly in the vital Northeast corridor.

So why is the Bush administration so anxious to kill it?

Mr. Gunn believes Amtrak needs about $1.8 billion in federal funds this year to stay on track. The administration has proposed spending half that. What does the government buy for $900 million? Most likely a shutdown of the entire system. And that kind of financial crisis, although familiar, would once again push Amtrak in the wrong direction.

It's frustrating that in the post-9/11 world, the Bush administration can't grasp the importance of keeping alive a viable national passenger rail system. Or see the benefits of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and safe rail travel. Wasn't it just yesterday that the nation's air transport system had to be temporarily shuttered for fear of terrorists? This is a time to expand travel choices, not to diminish them.

Think we spend too much on the Amtrak subsidy? In inflation-adjusted dollars, the amount the federal government gives Amtrak has gone down since 1973, while the subsidies given highways and air travel have more than doubled during the same period.

It's true that Amtrak has seen its share of mismanagement and made some poor decisions over the years. A recent General Accounting Office report pointed out that Amtrak has failed to bring down the New York to Boston travel time to 3 hours (it's currently 3 hours, 24 minutes). But even that is not wholly Amtrak's fault. One of the major delays has been the bottleneck created by track repair on a 50-mile stretch owned by Metro North, the commuter rail line. Outside the Northeast, Amtrak must cope with the freight industry's decaying infrastructure, something over which it has virtually no say.

These criticisms over performance also ignore how much Mr. Gunn has accomplished in getting Amtrak's administration under control. He's reduced the payroll by 3,417 positions to fewer than 20,000 today, and implemented better financial practices. It's been a back-to-basics approach that's emphasized refurbishing rails, cars and engines without pie-in-the-sky promises of new services or technologies. That kind of steady hand was exactly what Amtrak needed.

Once again, the real problem is the lack of a coherent national rail policy, a vision for the future. That's Washington's fault, not Amtrak's. Do we want our rail corridors rebuilt? Should Amtrak develop new high-speed routes? Should the states be required to make an economic investment in the rails? The country needs to stick to a strategy - instead of having these annual showdowns where draconian budget cuts are sought and supporters in Congress must ride to the rescue.

That's no way to run a railroad.

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