Amtrak board carves out NE Corridor operations

Critics see vote as first step to Bush goal of breaking up the railroad

October 13, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Amtrak board has approved an essential step in the Bush administration plan to break up the railroad, voting to carve out the Northeast Corridor, the tracks between Boston and Washington, as a separate division.

The board, made up entirely of President Bush's appointees, voted in a meeting Sept. 22 to create a new subsidiary to own and manage the corridor, which includes nearly all the track that Amtrak owns.

The vote was not announced.

It was reported yesterday in the newsletter of the United Rail Passenger Alliance of Jacksonville, Fla., an organization that has been highly critical of Amtrak management.

The plan, which would require action by Congress, is to transfer the corridor to a consortium including the federal government and the governments of the states in the region that would share the costs to maintain it.

That would relieve Amtrak from spending billions of dollars to build and rebuild bridges, rails and electrical systems, but still let the company run its trains.

The plan would also remove Amtrak from control of that sector, a condition that the railroad's senior executives say would doom high-speed long-distance service.

Managers say they have to be able to give their trains priority over local traffic if they are to have any hope of keeping their schedules.

A large majority of trains in the Northeast Corridor are shorter-distance commuter trains operated by state agencies in metropolitan regions, although Amtrak trains accrue a majority of the miles traveled.

The four-member board has shown ambivalence to some aspects of the administration's proposal.

On April 21, the chairman, David M. Laney, testified before a Senate committee, "We have concluded for now that the complexities and risks associated with such a split outweigh any benefits."

In a telephone interview yesterday, Laney denied that the vote to make the corridor a separate operating division was a precursor to separating it from Amtrak entirely.

He said it was a way to make the costs clear, for the Northeast Corridor, other corridors around the country and for long-distance and transcontinental trains. Such clarity is needed, Laney said, so Amtrak could ask states for subsidies for operating costs or capital costs, without the states' believing that their money was going to pay for operations in other regions.

"The combination of federal and state support for intercity passenger rail is the only way it's going to be revitalized, in our judgment," Laney said. "But we've got to be able to deliver numbers to Congress, to the corridor states and the other states where we have operations."

Amtrak supporters saw darker motives in the board's vote.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who is one of four main sponsors of a bipartisan bill to shore up the railroad, said separating the corridor was intended to package it for a change in ownership.

"The Bush administration wants to hold a fire sale on Amtrak and dump its best asset, the Northeast Corridor," Lautenberg said in a statement. "Selling the Northeast Corridor is the first step in President Bush's plan to destroy Amtrak and intercity rail service in America."

At the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which lobbies for more subsidies for Amtrak, the executive director, Ross B. Capon, said that separating the corridor into a distinct business entity was a step toward moving it out of Amtrak entirely, but that the move would also have a second effect, insulating the commuter operations in the Northeast from Amtrak troubles.

That, Capon said, would give more leverage to the Transportation Department, which has been leading the charge to close Amtrak or break it up.

"Their dream is an Amtrak crisis where the commuter trains are unaffected and, therefore, the political power behind the protest is that much smaller, and they can go ahead and do whatever they want with or to Amtrak," Capon said.

A spokesman for the Transportation Department had no comment.

Although the administration has proposed phasing out Amtrak unless major changes are enacted, the House has approved an appropriation of nearly $1.2 billion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, about the same level as the previous year.

The Senate might take up the appropriations bill next week. The version passed in committee calls for $1.45 billion.

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