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How to Wreck a Railroad
Published on Wednesday, June 26, 2002 in the Boston Globe
How to Wreck a Railroad
by Derrick Z. Jackson

NORMAN MINETA, the transportation secretary whose plan for Amtrak is to starve it into a cadaver, sang the glories of privatization last week before the US Chamber of Commerce. ''We firmly believe that marketplace discipline could deliver higher-quality service at competitive prices,'' Mineta said. ''We believe that clear-eyed, comprehensive, financially responsible transportation planning'' is ''crucial to the future of new forms of passenger rail.''

Most people know that since the Bush administration has given no thought to rail as it bails out the bungling airlines, Mineta's proclamations are peaking on the same snicker meter as Christine Todd Whitman's over at the Environmental Prostration Agency. It does not matter, for instance, that ridership for the Acela Express has shot up from 96,000 prior to the terrorist attacks to 205,000 riders in February, 220,000 in March, and 243,000 in April.

Rather than expand upon what Acela is doing right - like, duh, it moves faster, because, duh, the government invested in equipment - Bush and Mineta have declared Amtrak an unmitigated disaster. Bush is offering Amtrak only $512 million in federal funds in 2003, less than half of what Amtrak asked for and less than a quarter of what the General Accounting Office says is needed for American passenger rail to join the 21st century. This week, Amtrak is feverishly asking for $200 million in emergency loan guarantees to avoid a shutdown.

In his 1,600-word speech to the chamber, Mineta did not once mention the Acela, let alone praise it. He came to bury Amtrak altogether under the mantra of ''The country can ill afford to throw billions of federal dollars at Amtrak and just hope its problems disappear.... Merely hoping for better performance is a doomed approach.''

Mineta looks ridiculous in his trust of the marketplace when there is a dubious example that privatization can be a doomed approach. In Britain, privatizating the rails was the express to yet another train wreck.

In the mid-1990s, the much-maligned British Rail was broken up into many pieces. After years of complaining about bloated bureaucracies, British passengers hailed the new system, overseen by Railtrack, with increased ridership. What quickly unfolded was the flipside of waste, the tragedy of being cheap.

In the drive for profit, the rail lines were fragmented to the point where Railtrack had 2,000 subcontractors. Engineers who understood systems and track inspectors who intimately knew specific portions of rail down to their bolts were dispersed into separate companies or given pink slips. Institutional memory, by many accounts in the British press, resembled a bowl dropped from so high a cabinet shelf that the fragments were beyond the hope of any glue. Christian Wolmar, author of ''Broken Rails: How Privatization Wrecked Britain's Railways,'' recently wrote that privatization of the industry ''resulted in the loss of its culture.... Everything is contracted out to casual labor.''

How fragmented and casual the system had become was betrayed in several fatal train crashes since 1997 that have claimed a total of 59 lives. In the five years before privatization, Wolmar wrote, there had been only eight train fatalities. The crashes caused massive enforced slowdowns of trains because rail operators had little or no clue where other sections of broken rail lay. The disgraced CEO of Railtrack, Gerald Corbett, was forced to say that the breakup of British Rail was not designed ''to optimize safety, optimize investment, or cope with the huge increase in passengers.'' By December 2000, Prime Minister Tony Blair called a ride on public rail as ''absolute hell.''

For practical purposes, the British government is for now overseeing the rails again with a not-for-profit company called Network Rail. The government is holding out hope for continued private investment and has left many of the operating and maintenance contractors in place. But the fires fanned in the Hades of privatization remain hot. If you think Amtrak's need of $200 million in emergency loans sounds like a lot, the British rails may face between $15 billion to $20 billion in shortfalls to maintain its 10-year transportation plan.

Last month, Tim James, one of the researchers in an independent review by the University of Sheffield and Oxford Economic Research Associates, said, ''The train companies are basically bust.''

The bust of Britain has been so spectacular that Germany has slowed the brakes on its own plans for privatization. On the other side of the globe, Bush and Mineta have yet to see the broken rail that lies in their path.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company


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