Amtrak''s Future

Amtrak''s Future

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

While the Bush administration believes that giving states more control over Amtrak''s destiny will help create a "truly national system," others say that it will do just the opposite and that the plan would be the death knell for the national rail network. The administration''s vision also appears to conflict with the freight railroads'' stance on intercity passenger service.

The proposal, introduced on July 28, would separate train operations and infrastructure. It also would divide Amtrak into three companies: a private passenger rail company that would operate trains under contract to states and multistate compacts; a private rail infrastructure company that would maintain and operate the infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor under contract to a multistate compact; and the National Passenger Rail Corp., which would continue as a government corporation that would retain Amtrak''s current right to use the tracks of the freight railroads and the Amtrak corporate name. Both the track-access rights and the Amtrak brand, according to the plan, would be provided under contract to states for passenger rail service.

If enacted into the law, the proposal, which would be transitioned into place over a six-year period, would allow states to have the option of contracting service to private rail companies.

"The White House bill offers no concrete dollar amounts and fails to guarantee Amtrak a predictable capital funding source, thereby denying passenger rail the strong financial footing the U.S. government provides highways and aviation projects," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and a former Amtrak board member. "Instead, the administration would shift much of the cost of providing intercity passenger service to the states, which are already experiencing record deficits and are in no position to assume additional responsibilities such as this. Such a proposal could spell the end of Amtrak''s national network, a reduction of passenger train service across our country and a loss of mobility at a time when we need more travel options to protect our national and economic security and to help mitigate congestion and reduce pollution."

The Department of Transportation maintains that multistate compacts already are operating intercity rail services, with some planning for future high-speed rail operations. "The administration believes these cooperative partnerships between the states, the federal government and freight railroads will improve the efficiency of intercity passenger rail service as a viable alternative to air and highway travel in some corridors," according to DOT.

Amtrak leases track from all the major Class 1 railroads. Last year Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger, testifying before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Amtrak reauthorization, outlined seven principles the freight railroads said should guide national policy. One of those principles stated that Amtrak''s right of access, preferential access rates and operating priority should not be transferred or franchised.

"Should Amtrak intercity services be transferred to other passenger operators, it is unclear under what circumstances the transfer would be made and what characteristics would apply to the operators," Hamberger stated. Private entities, for example, might have different degrees of financial backing, and public authorities might or might not enjoy the full faith and credit of their sponsoring states, he said.

"If others are asked to provide Amtrak-like services, freight railroads must retain the right to negotiate terms (at arm''s length, free of governmental coercion) under which those providers will gain access to the freight railroad''s right of way," Hamberger asserted. "Freight railroads must become satisfied that acceptable operating practices and dedication to safety will be observed before they allow use of their facilities. Finally, freight railroads view the granting of statutory access to other passenger operators to be an unconstitutional ''taking'' of private property."

Hamberger was not available to comment on the administration''s proposal. However, "we stand by our seven principles" regarding Amtrak, said AAR spokesman Tom White. "We continue to oppose granting access by any other entity to the freight rail lines that Amtrak now has."

Labor quickly weighed in on the proposal as well. The United Transportation Union, which represents Amtrak conductors, called it a "McDonald''s-type franchising operation" that could permit "hobbyists" to design a lowest-cost operation rather than one that is customer-focused. "Rather than a plan for Amtrak''s future, it is a nefarious scheme to create havoc on the freight tracks that must be used by passenger trains," said UTU spokesman Frank N. Wilner. "The ultimate objective, of course, is to destroy our national intercity rail passenger network that is overwhelmingly supported by voters and taxpayers. Amtrak''s problem is not operations but rather a need for sufficient capital. The administration ignores this."

Amtrak President David L. Gunn, who said his organization was neither consulted nor briefed on the plan, said that the need to maintain Amtrak operations "vastly overshadows" debate over the proposal. "Acting in the best interest of millions of rail passengers in the short term while the long-term policy debate evolves is a goal to which all parties - the administration, Congress and Amtrak - should adhere."