Transit authorities from Maryland to Connecticut are deciding what to do with the 200,000 people who ride Conrail, the federal government's railroad, to get to work each day.
That's because Conrail has been ordered by Congress to abandon the commuter business by next Jan. 1. Officials in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are supposed to say by today whether they are going to run the trains themselves, pay all the costs for a new organization, the Amtrak Commuter Services Corp., to run them, or simply abandon the commuters.
That last alternative is regarded by the states as unthinkable. "One way or the other, we're going to have trains after Jan. 1," said Richard Ravitch, chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).
The MTA and New Jersey Transit have responded to today's deadline essentially the same way: we'll be happy to run the trains, they've said, with some help from Amtrak Commuter, but since this change is the federal government's idea, the federal government must pay the costs of making the transition.
MTA is estimating a one-time transition cost of $50 million; New Jersey is estimating $20 million. Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) wants Amtrak Commuter to run the trains and estimates transition costs at $20 million.
Amtrak Commuter is not to be confused with Amtrak, the nickname for the National Railroad Passenger Corp., a federally funded agency that runs long-haul passenger trains and owns the railroad tracks between Washington and Boston. Amtrak Commuter's only federal money is to be for the transition period. When commuter operations begin, passengers and the states are to foot the entire bill.
Conrail's 1,542 daily commuter trains carry passengers to jobs in Washington, Philadelphia, Hoboken, Newark and New York. But those trains--just like other passenger trains in the free world--lose money. Last year Conrail collected $303.2 million in fares from its passengers, but spent $614.5 million on passenger service. The difference was made up from federal, state and local subsidies.
The get-passengers-out-of-Conrail movement is classic "New Federalism": responsibility for commuter railroad operations is pushed down to the states while federal operating aid is zeroed out. Federal operating aid is also being eliminated for bus and subway systems.
While federal aid represents a relatively small percentage of the total operating subsidy for the Conrail commuter operations, the prospect of having to build a new rail management team and negotiate labor contracts with 20 unions under the gun of a January deadline has huge financial implications for the states.
"The Conrail problems cannot be laid solely on the federal government," said David Gunn, general manager of SEPTA. "There's a long history of inadequate management and budget operations and out-of-control labor agreements."
Gunn's fear, shared in New York and New Jersey, is that union contracts will make the cost of running the trains almost prohibitive. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week that New York's MTA must follow federal railway labor law in negotiating with employes on the state-owned Long Island Rail Road, and that ruling has added to those fears.
Weak-kneed labor contracts and shoddy management are the reasons the federal government got into the railroad business in the first place. Conrail, the Consolidated Rail Corp., was organized to keep freight service operating in the Northeast after the Penn Central failed in 1976. In the process, Conrail inherited passenger trains that had been feeding suburbanites into Philadelphia and New York since the 19th century.
In the Washington area, there are still two Conrail commuter trains daily between Baltimore and Washington (Maryland's Transportation Department has indicated informally it wants Amtrak Commuter to run those trains).
The purpose of getting the commuters off Conrail is to make Conrail more attractive to a potential private buyer, which Lewis promised at his confirmation hearing he would try to do.
Legislation making that possible was incorporated in the budget reconciliation act, and Amtrak Commuter was set up to establish a shell management office in case it is needed. David W. Marston, the former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia who made headlines when President Carter fired him for the sin of being a Republican, was named president of Amtrak Commuter.
Marston has been meeting with committees from the various state transit authorities to work on common problems. With substantial support from Washington, there is some discussion of having Amtrak Commuter negotiate a common contract with all the labor unions that would apply equally to the individual state passenger operations. That would eliminate the possibility of one state cutting a better deal than another, but it also creates suspicion. "I'm a little worried about that gift horse," an MTA official said.
Marston himself has been talking tough about labor agreements. "I have a feeling the railroad unions are more realistic about what's possible and what's not possible than they used to be," he said. "I have no doubt that we are going to have intense negotiations. The question is whether we can accurately communicate realities in terms of cost of service.