35 years on ‘trak’


WASHINGTON- Last year, President Bush proposed no federal aid for Amtrak. Its highly touted high-speed train was sidelined for months with brake problems and its president was fired. Still, the passenger railroad chugs on toward its 35th birthday Monday.

To mark the occasion, a group of analysts who have followed Amtrak’s woes over the years will gather in Washington to discuss what critics call Amtrak’s “35 years of subsidies, waste and deception.”

“Amtrak keeps making promises that things would get better, one promise after another,” said Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak spokesman and former member of the Amtrak Reform Council. “But people fall for the promises, and Amtrak survives.”

Keith Ashdown with the group Taxpayers for Common Sense said Congress shoulders some of the blame for Amtrak’s financial woes. The railroad always seems to teeter on the brink of failure, only to be pulled back by a last-minute infusion of cash from Capitol Hill.

Amtrak has debt of more than $3.5 billion and its operating loss for 2005 topped $550 million.

“Congress has been practicing schizophrenic leadership, trying to give Amtrak tough love, but then giving them the money anyway, but no real clear consensus opinion on how they want Amtrak to change,” Ashdown said. “There’s never been any real direction given to Amtrak except saying that they have to be more fiscally responsible.”

David Hughes, Amtrak’s acting president, said the railroad’s future is bright. It has begun a host of initiatives to revamp some long-distance routes, streamline its finances and boost customer service while looking at several cost-cutting initiatives such as revamping its food and beverage service.

Hughes said one important thing Amtrak has accomplished was agreeing on a mission statement with its management, board of directors and the Transportation Department. The mission is to provide the country with “safe, reliable intercity passenger service in an economically sound manner that will exceed customer expectations.”

“We have some common ground here that hasn’t existed in a long time for Amtrak,” Hughes told The Associated Press.

But his predecessor, David Gunn, isn’t buying it.

Gunn, fired last November after opposing the Amtrak board on a host of issues, said he believes the board will hire a president who “won’t challenge City Hall” and will not block the Bush administration’s goal of dismantling Amtrak.

Administration officials say they want to reform Amtrak, not destroy it.

“If they hire a serious person, someone who believes there should be intercity passenger service in this country, that person is being hired by a government that is trying to destroy the company,” Gunn said from his home on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada.

“Reform is their code word for “Make it go away,”‘ he added. Gunn’s firing capped off a bad 2005 for Amtrak. It had to suspend all high-speed Acela service in April due to cracks discovered in some brakes. The congressional Government Accountability Office said Amtrak must improve how it monitors performance and oversees its finances in order to reach firm financial footing.

Bush had proposed no money for Amtrak in 2005, but Congress approved $1.3 billion in subsidies. Amtrak’s budget request for the next fiscal year is $1.59 billion, while Bush is calling for $900 million.

Gunn said $900 million would force the railroad to “eviscerate the system,” saying that is too little for capital costs.

Analysts say Amtrak must stop relying on subsidies. Rail routes with low ridership should be cut, new labor rules negotiated and some operations privatized, they say.

Ronald Utt, a transportation analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Amtrak should look to Japan, Britain and Canada for some ideas.

In Britain, the country was sliced up into 26 different train routes that were put out for bid. Private companies now operate various routes, with some having turned profits.

In Japan, a big chunk of the rail system was privatized and is now making a profit, Utt said. Canada simply reduced its railroad’s annual subsidy.

“Rail problems are not unique to the United States,” Utt said.

On the Net:

Amtrak: http://www.amtrak.com

AP-ES-04-29-06 1327EDT