Shippers, passengers and policy-makers are in a tizzy as Amtrak strike deadlines come and go. Meanwhile, many in Congress hold their noses over an Amtrak ''reform'' bill blatantly inadequate to reverse Amtrak's poor health.
What has received insufficient notice is that Amtrak is transforming itself into a freight carrier. Amtrak argues the term ''express'' in its enabling statute paves the way for the freight shipments it chooses to transport.Not so fast, Amtrak.
In 1972, as executive director for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, I lobbied into law provisions giving Amtrak authority to enter the ''express'' and mail business with ''express'' defined as a small-package, time-sensitive, retail-oriented service.
I explained how Amtrak could serve the proverbial Aunt Minnie, who, say, could ship a box of books from the station to her daughter in college. This would incrementally increase Amtrak revenue with few added costs, since agents would be on duty anyway and no extra railcars would be needed.
I've seen no change in law since that gives Amtrak the right to haul carload or truckload-sized shipments, as it's doing with beer, soft drinks, steel, truck parts, and other commodities.
Had I known the provision would someday be used by Amtrak to justify obtaining 600 railcars to carry general freight, I would have dropped the effort. That's because two years before that I had fought to create Amtrak as an organization dedicated to serving passengers without distracting freight considerations.
Further, I'm unable to recall one individual or organization who, in written or oral arguments to create Amtrak, urged formation of a freight-carrying entity.
No matter to Amtrak. By carrying products like beer, Amtrak hopes to preserve politically useful trains. The ploy is futile because Amtrak's long-distance trains, struggling in an outdated common-carrier role, are marketplace losers.
Evidence is mounting that travelers are receiving second-class treatment while Amtrak gives priority to freight. On Oct. 26, a half-hour was added to several schedules to allow time for Amtrak trains to sit in Chicago yards - with passengers aboard - as locomotives coupled and uncoupled boxcars. For the same reason, 20 minutes were added in Dallas and Fort Worth to the Texas Eagle, a train that's about five hours slower between St. Louis and San Antonio than its 1952 predecessor.
If more travelers turn away from Amtrak and passenger revenue declines, what will Amtrak have achieved?
Long-distance trains, which Amtrak is targeting for freight traffic, had a 58 percent on-time record during the most recent quarter. The Surface Transportation Board, as it considers the Amtrak-Union Pacific proceeding, should consider that additional freight cars won't make long-distance Amtrak trains faster, more punctual or more socially useful.
Congress has reason to be alarmed as Amtrak's behavior is raising liquidation costs.
Amtrak has hired people for its new freight department. Yet, under the Railway Labor Act, Amtrak must provide a labor protection plan to give workers a severance of full salary and benefits for up to six years - costing an estimated $1.1 billion to $6.9 billion, depending on variables. But by hiring people Amtrak risks broadening eligibility for costly payouts.
One manager has proposed establishing an Amtrak pickup and delivery service by acquiring direct trucking authority to reach points not on Amtrak lines. How far will this go? Will Amtrak someday become a trucking company?
The poor-performing Amtrak of today, with its late trains and ridership barely higher than in the 1970s, is not the Amtrak I and others worked to create.
Unfortunately, current Amtrak legislation assumes the federal government must maintain its role in passenger service. Why? Washington doesn't operate a national airline or a national bus line.
I urge that we denationalize rail passenger service, abolish the labor protection clause. Let's create an independent Amtrak Transition Board to carefully liquidate Amtrak, transfer corridor services to state governments, and give long-distance routes to private operators to run as scenic ''land-cruise'' trains.
In other nations privatizing their railroads, Amtrak would be phased out of existence.
Until that phaseout begins here, Congress should direct Amtrak to disband its new freight department and cancel orders for boxcars and RoadRailer trailers.
Otherwise, taxpayers are in the intolerable position of subsidizing Amtrak's entry into the freight business today and its exit tomorrow. America shouldn't have to pay twice for a service Amtrak has no right to enter in the first place.
Amtrak's move into freight is proof that Amtrak is a dysfunctional entity in the passenger business. Federal expenditures and obligations for Amtrak, combined with state subsidies, now total about $22.5 billion. We've spent enough. Let's launch a well-planned liquidation of Amtrak, an experiment that has failed.