Submitted Response to Washington Post Op-Ed, December 3, 2005

Capon’s submitted response is below the re-printed article.


Amtrak’s Future
Saturday, December 3, 2005; Page A22
© 2005 The Washington Post Company

AMTRAK PRESIDENT David L. Gunn was abruptly fired last month by a board of directors that is operating with just four of seven members. Only one board member, Chairman David M. Laney, was actually confirmed by the Senate; two others were given recess appointments by President Bush, including one who had never ridden an Amtrak train before taking the job. The fourth is a Transportation Department representative.

So when the board suddenly booted Mr. Gunn, an experienced railroad manager who helped fix the New York City subway system during the 1980s and oversaw the Washington area’s Metro system during the early 1990s, there was ample reason to question what was going on at Amtrak. After all, it was just a few months earlier that Mr. Laney, the chairman, had praised Mr. Gunn for doing a “splendid job,” having “righted a ship that was listing and about to spill over.”

Certainly, Amtrak needs a more experienced, fully staffed and Senate-confirmed board. Mr. Gunn did indeed make significant improvements in Amtrak’s operations. But as Mr. Gunn has noted, the circumstances that led to his unceremonious departure boil down to a fundamental disagreement over the direction of Amtrak—a disagreement in which the board and the Bush administration may have the better of the argument. To the extent that Mr. Gunn’s departure can have a positive effect, it ought to be as a catalyst for the administration and Congress to get a functioning board in place and to grapple with difficult questions about Amtrak’s future.

Amtrak, a theoretically for-profit enterprise that has never managed to wean itself from government subsidies, has been running annual operating losses of $500 million; it’s received almost $30 billion in federal subsidies since its creation in 1971.

One bottom-line question is whether Amtrak should continue to operate money-losing long-distance routes that make little sense today but that have entrenched political support in Congress. Amtrak shouldn’t be spending millions on these uneconomical routes while failing to perform vital upkeep on the critical Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, where the infrastructure has been so neglected that it would cost around $2 billion to remedy.

Mr. Gunn and his congressional supporters say that the Bush administration, which proposed zero funding for Amtrak in its 2006 budget, wants to privatize, and thereby destroy, Amtrak. The administration denies any such plan, but it indeed envisions a far different arrangement than the current system, with a shared role for federal and state governments in owning and maintaining rail infrastructure but private-sector competition in providing service on those routes. This could be a more logical model, but, as Mr. Gunn argues, dividing infrastructure from operations can pose more difficulties for railroads than for highways or even airlines.

The Amtrak board, though it does not go as far as the Bush administration, is taking some steps in that direction, over Mr. Gunn’s vehement objections—hence his departure. The obvious place to start is the Northeast Corridor, as the board is doing by moving to establish a subsidiary that would own and maintain the infrastructure.

Describing the administration’s plans in a speech, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said, “We are willing to put taxpayer money to fund passenger rail where it makes sense, but we aren’t where it doesn’t.” If that’s an accurate statement of the administration’s intentions, it’s on the right track. What’s far less certain is whether Congress is willing to go along for even a small part of the ride.


To the Editor of The Washington Post:

It is not clear that David Gunn’s dismissal as Amtrak’s president and chief executive officer “boiled down to a fundamental disagreement over the direction of Amtrak,” as The Post contended (editorial, Dec. 3). The cause more likely was a clash of personalities.

We think it is also wrong to suggest that the Bush Administration – which has worked doggedly to kill national .intercity passenger train service – is pursuing a sound policy and that the Amtrak Board under Chairman David Laney is moving in a similar direction. Mr. Laney led the effort that produced Amtrak’s April 2005 strategic plan. That plan recognizes the importance of the national intercity rail system and that “continuation of long distance service will require continuing limited federal operating and equipment support.”

The Post complains that long distance trains are “money-losing,” yet it takes less public funding to transport one passenger one mile on the long distance network than it does on the Northeast Corridor. Moreover, in relation to the quantity of service provided, the long distance network is just as heavily patronized as the Corridor.

Long-distance trains, as the Laney plan states, “provide an important transportation link for many underserved rural communities and regions across the country.” These trains also serve short and medium distance markets, offer a choice that is far safer than driving, and are vital for people who cannot or do not want to fly. They “serve as a foundation of a future rail development program,” again quoting the Laney plan. In other words, by keeping important facilities in place they make it easier and cheaper to start new commuter railroad and short intercity services.

We need both the national network and the Northeast Corridor. The Post is wrong to suggest that the long distance network has kept Amtrak from performing “vital upkeep” on the Corridor. Gunn – to his credit – improved the condition of both Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor infrastructure and its national fleet of locomotives and cars.

Sincerely,

Ross B. Capon,
Executive Director
National Association of Railroad Passengers