Fired Amtrak chief stood in the way of reform

December 01, 2005|By ANTHONY HASWELL AND JOSEPH VRANICH

Some members of Congress from the Northeast are arguing that David L. Gunn should not have been fired as Amtrak's president because he improved the railroad.

A few have demanded that Amtrak's board reinstate him to his job.

We disagree.

Amtrak continues to lose buckets of red ink. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, recently found that during the last three fiscal years, Amtrak's operating losses have increased to more than $1 billion annually and losses are projected to increase by 40 percent over the next four years. Trains on most Amtrak routes outside the Northeast and West Coast corridors are slower than those of 50 to 70 years ago. Moreover, on-time performance is terrible.

Mr. Gunn's record at Amtrak was not much different from that of any of his predecessors - tweaking around the edges of the status quo while constantly demanding more public appropriations. He was worse because of his repeated threats to shut down Amtrak during cash shortfalls. Suspending Amtrak operations would leave many non-Amtrak trains, such as MARC's Baltimore-Washington commuter trains, idle and passengers stranded.

While Mr. Gunn succeeded in using this tactic to strong-arm Congress into raising subsidies, there is no guarantee that it would work in the future. With him gone, Northeastern commuters - who bear no responsibility for Amtrak's fiscal woes - can relax.

Those wanting to preserve Amtrak the way it is claim that people who live in many parts of the country will have no other transportation alternative if long-distance train service ends. But Amtrak service today is accessible by a very small portion of residents of small towns and rural areas. Instead of expanding Amtrak, it would be more cost-effective to provide adequate air and bus service.

Just a few years ago, Amtrak launched a route in rural Wisconsin that the GAO found lost a staggering $1,208 per passenger in 2001. The train was discontinued in anticipation of a media story that showed it running nearly empty most days.

When alternatives to Amtrak are proposed, Mr. Gunn bashes British Rail privatization and overlooks its successes. Since private operators replaced the nationalized system, Britain has Europe's fastest-growing passenger railway.

In the 2003-2004 reporting period, more than 1.1 billion trips were made on British trains - the highest level since 1947. From the last year of nationalized operations a decade ago to last year, British train traffic has shown an astonishing increase of 343 million trips; the increase alone is about 14 times greater than last year's Amtrak record total of 25 million passengers. One British operator, Central Trains, found in a survey that 30 percent of passengers had not used the train in more than 20 years.

That Britain erred in initially privatizing the tracks as well as the trains is irrelevant because no one in the United States, not even the Bush administration, has proposed that model for this country. Since Britain transferred the tracks to a nonprofit entity a few years ago, traffic has soared, deferred maintenance is being overcome and track capacity is being expanded to meet future growth. While public subsidies continue, the British must be doing something right because Amtrak's cost per passenger mile to move a customer is much higher than Britain's cost.

After 34 years and nearly $30 billion in federal subsidies to Amtrak, the American people deserve better. We need a fundamental restructuring of inter-city rail passenger service, with or without Amtrak having a role, to emphasize service on densely populated lines such as the one through Baltimore.

That's an essential reform that Mr. Gunn opposed, to the ongoing detriment of taxpayers and travelers.

Anthony Haswell founded the National Association of Railroad Passengers and headed that group through 1974. His e-mail is tonyhaswell@cox.net. Joseph Vranich is the author of "End of the Line". His e-mail is joevranich@yahoo.com.

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