Amtrak's Future

Saturday, December 3, 2005

AMTRAK PRESIDENT David L. Gunn was abruptly fired last month by a board of directors that is operating with just four of seven members. Only one board member, Chairman David M. Laney, was actually confirmed by the Senate; two others were given recess appointments by President Bush, including one who had never ridden an Amtrak train before taking the job. The fourth is a Transportation Department representative.

So when the board suddenly booted Mr. Gunn, an experienced railroad manager who helped fix the New York City subway system during the 1980s and oversaw the Washington area's Metro system during the early 1990s, there was ample reason to question what was going on at Amtrak. After all, it was just a few months earlier that Mr. Laney, the chairman, had praised Mr. Gunn for doing a "splendid job," having "righted a ship that was listing and about to spill over."

Certainly, Amtrak needs a more experienced, fully staffed and Senate-confirmed board. Mr. Gunn did indeed make significant improvements in Amtrak's operations. But as Mr. Gunn has noted, the circumstances that led to his unceremonious departure boil down to a fundamental disagreement over the direction of Amtrak -- a disagreement in which the board and the Bush administration may have the better of the argument. To the extent that Mr. Gunn's departure can have a positive effect, it ought to be as a catalyst for the administration and Congress to get a functioning board in place and to grapple with difficult questions about Amtrak's future.

Amtrak, a theoretically for-profit enterprise that has never managed to wean itself from government subsidies, has been running annual operating losses of $500 million; it's received almost $30 billion in federal subsidies since its creation in 1971.

One bottom-line question is whether Amtrak should continue to operate money-losing long-distance routes that make little sense today but that have entrenched political support in Congress. Amtrak shouldn't be spending millions on these uneconomical routes while failing to perform vital upkeep on the critical Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, where the infrastructure has been so neglected that it would cost around $2 billion to remedy.

Mr. Gunn and his congressional supporters say that the Bush administration, which proposed zero funding for Amtrak in its 2006 budget, wants to privatize, and thereby destroy, Amtrak. The administration denies any such plan, but it indeed envisions a far different arrangement than the current system, with a shared role for federal and state governments in owning and maintaining rail infrastructure but private-sector competition in providing service on those routes. This could be a more logical model, but, as Mr. Gunn argues, dividing infrastructure from operations can pose more difficulties for railroads than for highways or even airlines.

The Amtrak board, though it does not go as far as the Bush administration, is taking some steps in that direction, over Mr. Gunn's vehement objections -- hence his departure. The obvious place to start is the Northeast Corridor, as the board is doing by moving to establish a subsidiary that would own and maintain the infrastructure.

Describing the administration's plans in a speech, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said, "We are willing to put taxpayer money to fund passenger rail where it makes sense, but we aren't where it doesn't." If that's an accurate statement of the administration's intentions, it's on the right track. What's far less certain is whether Congress is willing to go along for even a small part of the ride.


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