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Mary McGrory

Amtrak Melodrama

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, June 30, 2002; Page B07

Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) opened a colloquy on Amtrak with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in his usual direct fashion: "Let's cut out the monkeyshines and get down to business."

Hollings was trying to make the point that the near-death experience suffered by Amtrak was, as he put it later, "a Karl Rove Special" -- a little melodrama staged by the president's political guru so he could say, "We rescued Amtrak."

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The chairman of the Commerce Committee obviously thinks the spectacle of Amtrak facing death, like the silent-movie heroine tied to the tracks while a speeding train bears down on her, was just theater. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told a hearing on Tuesday that "it is unthinkable to have Amtrak shut down -- I think it has to be kept going." The administration thought so, too. Grudgingly the president forked over $100 million in a loan, a sum that Amtrak says is half what it needs to get through the fiscal year.

"The president wouldn't shut down the railroad and strand a million people over the Fourth of July," says Hollings. Asked for evidence of Rove's hand in the matter, Hollings growled that he had "yet to see an event that Rove wasn't involved in."

Hollings is the author of a new Amtrak bill that would cut down the drama in the rail line's existence. The National Defense Rail Act authorizes $1.4 billion in emergency security funds; it passed easily out of the Commerce Committee, 20 to 3. The premise is that 9/11 brought home the need for an alternative to air and road travel -- no matter who thinks that real men drive or fly and only contrary easterners like to go slowly.

Despite White House disapproval, people are discovering the amenities of train travel. They like not having to take off their shoes for inspection before boarding. They like being able to use the restroom any time they feel like it. This is in sharp contrast to air's stern warnings to land immediately if the rules about restroom trips are broken. And the Acela, the popular new fast train that goes from Washington to Boston, serves hot food with cloth napkins -- nothing like the penal fare doled out aloft: water and pretzels, and that's if you're lucky.

Sen. John McCain calls the subsidizing of Amtrak "pork." Other conservative Republicans insist that Amtrak should be "self-sufficient," even though every other country in the world has faced the fact that passenger rail service is not a profit-maker and cheerfully uses government funds to keep it going.

Republicans cling to the notion that if they break up Amtrak and sell pieces of it to private business, they can turn a profit. That is, the operations would remain with Amtrak but the roadbeds would belong to some entrepreneur, preferably not one of those scoundrels whose wickedness has made the business section into what Doonesbury calls the "crime page." Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher had a similar idea and wrecked the excellent British rail system. Today's prime minister, Tony Blair, is spending millions to put it back together.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the current picture is that David Gunn, the mass transit veteran, recently came out of retirement in his ancestral home of Nova Scotia to become Amtrak's president. In public testimony, he has labeled the White House notions "loony." He has cut headquarters staff, started new bookkeeping practices, hangs out at Union Station with incoming train crews and has lifted morale among workers who haven't had raises in 2 1/2 years. Charles Moneypenny of the Transport Workers Union of America says that a key part of the administration plan is to get rid of union workers and contract out jobs to "politically connected contractors."

Another board member, Washington attorney Sylvia de Leon, points to another source of hope: The most fervent lobbyists for Amtrak are governors and mayors, who not only want to preserve current lines but also hope for expansion.

One Republican governor has a considerable stake in train service. Jeb Bush of Florida is certainly aware of the importance of the Auto Train, the oversubscribed service that brings tourists and business to his state.

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) spoke up for Amtrak on the House floor. He pointed out that ridership in the Northeast Corridor was up 23 percent in May and that revenue increased by 44 percent in the past year, that trains use less fuel and cause less pollution than planes or cars. But maybe Bush's brother is the key.

"Let's hope that we can play the Jeb Bush card," he says. "It might save Amtrak."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company