Vowing "this company will survive," Auto-Train Corp. Chairman Eugene K. Garfield yesterday announced the railroad has received a $3.7 million line of credit from a Swiss bank and will use part of the money to pay its back taxes, delinquent debts and long-overdue refunds to customers.
The overseas loan, Garfield said, "will go a long way toward relieving the pressure" on the Washington railroad, which has been in serious financial trouble for months.
He said the loan could also enable Auto-Train to settle legal actions filed against the company recently by the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Internal Revenue Service. Talks are also under way to settle a lawsuit that was filed by Continental Illinois National Bank of Chicago to repossess the railroad's locomotives, he added.
Garfield also promised Auto-Train "will repay our passengers," some of whom have been waiting since February for refunds on reservations they canceled. But in a press conference after the meeting, Garfield refused to say how long it will take to pay back the total of $450,000 the company owes to passengers.
The U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs and the ICC have been trying for months to make the railroad pay the refunds, and yesterday the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations sent a staff member to the meeting to try to determine when the consumers will get their money.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Texas) has urged the ICC to take action against Auto-Train. The railroad regulators last week sued the company to force it to put $500,000 into a special bank account to pay refunds to passengers in case Auto-Train goes out of business.
In a speech to stockholders prepared with the help of former White House Press Secretary Ron Nessen, Garfield said the Swiss loan is "only the beginning of a major resurgence in our fortunes." The railroad this week hired Nessen's Washington public relations firm to rebuild its battered image. It also has retained one of the city's highest-paid law firms, Williams & Connelly, to fend off the spate of legal actions.
Garfield also announced the company earned a profit of $204,000 (12 cents a share) in the three months ended June 30, in contrast to a loss of $223,800 (14 cents) in the same period a year ago. Revenues of the railroad increased to $8.4 million from $6.8 million last year.
The quarter was the second profitable period in a row for the company. Nonetheless, Auto-Train has been in such serious financial trouble that its paychecks to employes, and refund checks to passengers have been bouncing.
Garfield blamed the railroad's troubles on a derailment three years ago and what he called "a marketing error" in raising fares in 1978 just as airlines were cutting their fares to Florida.
He said the company's problems have been magnified by former officers and directors whom he accused of "a campaign to muddy Auto-Train's name and besmirch its reputation."
The company has hired a private detective to investigate persons believed to be responsible for negative press reports about the company, Garfield confirmed during the press conference. But he declined to identify the persons he was criticizing, saying the company is considering legal action against them.
Auto-Train next week will ask the ICC to approve its plan to borrow $3.7 million from the Banque Keyser Ullman en Suisse SA in Geneva, Garfield said.