For weeks, as the country reeled from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the brief but traumatic shutdown of commercial air service, Americans asked fresh questions: Don't we need backup systems? Don't we at least need a quality national rail network like all other advanced nations?
Amtrak ran extra trains, honored airline tickets, even carried members of Congress to New York to witness the World Trade Center wreckage. The Milwaukee Journal reflected broad national sentiment when it editorialized: "The solution to national transportation problems isn't simply safer planes, but better trains."
In January, Amtrak ridership was up 4.5 percent from the prior year while domestic airline service was off 14.7 percent.
Yet, on Feb. 1, Amtrak President George Warrington announced that 1,000 employees would be laid off, staffing would be reduced at 73 stations and, in the absence of at least $1.2 billion in new funds by October, the system would be obliged to discontinue virtually all its long-distance trains outside the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor.
The reason is obvious: the federal government's perennial undernourishment of Amtrak. This year, $33 billion of federal subsidies are flowing to highways, $13 billion to aviation (not to mention the $15 billion post-9/11 bailout), but only $570 million to intercity passenger rail.
Congress has continued to demand that Amtrak become "self-sustaining." It won't happen there's virtually no place in the world where rail or other transportation systems pay their own way. The congressionally mandated Amtrak Reform Council has now officially told Congress that Amtrak will continue to hemorrhage red ink after Dec. 2, the latest deadline.
The Reform Council's own recommendation is that Amtrak be split up, with major regional rail franchises (in the South or Pacific Northwest, for example) sold off to private businesses. But the council hasn't told Congress how to pay the bill, even if privatization is a reasonable idea. And critics say it would be a tragedy to blow up a national rail system during a recession, when neither states nor corporations have capital to invest in rail system operations.
If you think this is a mess, read on. There's big division within the Bush administration. Mitchell Daniels, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and free-marketeers are ready to extinguish Amtrak. They have a big friend in Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who rails against federal subsidies to Amtrak but sees no problem in federal subsidies for parched Arizona's water systems or subsidized air service to small Arizona towns.
On the other hand, many pragmatic administration officials want to preserve Amtrak for security reasons and to avoid political harm to President Bush if most U.S. passenger rail service disappears on his watch. They have allies in a bipartisan group of dozens of senators and more than 100 House members anxious to invest new billions into high-speed rail service connecting major cities.
Yet, Amtrak's supporters have their own embarrassment: The system has entrenched unions who impair productivity and were reportedly responsible for the 1997 firing of Tom Downs, Amtrak's most hard-driving president of recent years. "Work throughput at Amtrak maintenance stations is laughable," one insider told me.
And with Amtrak's cash shortages, the system is barely surviving paycheck to paycheck now. Rail cars are increasingly shabby and dirty; safety's allegedly tended to though in this cutback atmosphere, it would be easy to cut one corner too many. Even with huge passenger demand, dozens of rail cars are sitting unrepaired, and the numbers are mounting.
There are some shards of good news. One is the rather selfless move of Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate, to step down as acting chairman of Amtrak's board, making way for a Republican, Mayor John Robert Smith of Meridian, Miss., to become chairman. Smith, a friend of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, chairs the National Corridors Initiative and the Great American Station Foundation. He will likely be a strong fighter in his own party for Amtrak's survival.
A second development is a series of House hearings on Amtrak's future, now under way, chaired by Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y. Quinn warns of imminent peril of "disintegration" of U.S. passenger rail service. "I will not stand by and watch that train leave the station," he pledges.
And while Amtrak gets hammered for its costs, projects like $600 million highway spaghetti bowl intersections sprout across the country. One is under construction near Buffalo, where The Buffalo News predicts the result will be still more "bumper to bumper" traffic jams.
When, one has to wonder, will we start diverting those hundreds of millions to a passenger system worthy of a great (and more secure) 21st-century nation?
There's peril that Amtrak may soon lose its rights to operate on America's rail lines outside the Northeast Corridor (most owned by freight railroads). Patriotism says that Congress better step in quickly.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Seattle Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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