Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Move could signal an end to long-distance train service

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON -- The firing Wednesday of Amtrak President David Gunn could make it easier to eliminate cross-country train lines and turn over the deteriorating Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston to private hands.

Gunn had resisted Bush administration calls to privatize its track in the Northeast and eliminate long-distance lines that serve rural America but don't pay for themselves.

But those steps might not be any easier to achieve now that the company's governing board, made up of Bush appointees, has gotten rid of Gunn. Some members of Congress said they'll be even more reluctant to endorse White House calls for change.

"The board's decision today provides a degree of uncertainty that does no one any good: the people who ride Amtrak, the people who work there and for us in Congress who want to reform [it]," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a former Amtrak board member. "His departure is not going to convince anyone in the Senate that selling off the Northeast corridor is a good idea."

Federal taxpayers have contributed about $29 billion to Amtrak since it was created in 1971. Its trains operate in 46 states and carry more than 25 million passengers a year.

Amtrak Chairman David M. Laney announced Wednesday that David Hughes, the railroad's chief engineer, would run the quasi-public company while the board conducts a national search for a replacement.

Laney said Amtrak needed "a different type of leader who will aggressively tackle the company's financial, management and operational challenges" than Gunn, who had headed transit systems in New York City, Toronto and Washington.

Gunn's firing comes less than a week after a report by the Government Accountability Office criticized Amtrak's financial management. The report accused the company of approving contracts that mushroomed far above their initial amount, spending $2 for every $1 in revenue from food and beverage service, and giving top executives bonuses without spelling out why they had earned them.

But the GAO also gave some praise to Gunn, who has boosted ridership, cut Amtrak's work force and discontinued some of Amtrak's money-losing pursuits since he was appointed in 2003. He also earned bipartisan praise from Capitol Hill. Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi called Gunn's dismissal "a step backward" for the nation's passenger rail system.

Lott was the prime author of a measure the Senate passed overwhelmingly last week authorizing more than $11 billion over the next six years to reduce Amtrak's debt, fix its tracks and keep it operating.

Gunn had said -- and lawmakers such as Lott and Carper agreed -- that the federal government has an obligation to provide a national rail network, even though some cross-country lines cost more than $100 per passenger in federal subsidies.

Gunn's departure means it's going to be easier to confine rail service to California, the Northeast and regions of the country where passenger traffic is highest, lamented rail advocate Jim RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative Inc.

"The administration has decided to accelerate the end of long-distance service because that's the fundamental goal," he said.

Tom Till, who headed the now-disbanded Amtrak Reform Council, which Congress set up to suggest ways of improving passenger rail, said it's too early to tell what this latest step means for the future of passenger rail.

Paul Weinstein Jr., chief operating officer and senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, said firing Gunn is part of the administration's agenda to eliminate -- not reform -- Amtrak. But the move might backfire, he said.

"It's going to worsen the relationship between the Congress and the president," he said. "It's almost as though the Bush administration has decided to declare war on Congress through Amtrak. Whether that makes sense politically? I don't think so."

Snave's notes: Of course the best way to bankrupt something that is subsidized is to remove all of its funding. Amtrak has certainly been losing money, so what difference will it make to just take away ALL of it's money? It will still be a money-loser no matter what, right? Arrrgh.

I found the above article because I was interested in learning more after hearing an interview with Gunn on NPR yesterday... sheesh. He said the Bush administration had even flat-out SAID they were going to bankrupt Amtrak. Let alone expand it...

I guess we wouldn't want to become too much like Europe, where national mass transit systems are a given. Here in the U.S., fewer people taking the train means more people will be taking cars, and that does not hurt the auto industry as much.

Bush obviously doesn't like Amtrak, so he can replace Gunn with someone who will oversee the destruction of the organization... that's kind of like sending the anti-U.N. John Bolton to be our country's U.N. guy... or it would be like putting former pro-oil-drilling folks in cabinet posts that have bearing on environmental issues...

The lesson this may teach many Americans (or the lesson it may reinforce) is simple: if you don't like something, wreck it.


Blogger Sheryl said...

What is this some warped plan to force the country into an Atlas Shrugged reality?

7:26 PM  
Blogger Snave said...

I was never able to force myself to read "Atlas Shrugged"... I did plow through "The Fountainhead". I enjoyed it as a story, and I didn't mind the character of Howard Roark so awfully much until he started speechifying near the end of the book.

Speaking of Amtrak, I didn't mention that in the NPR interview Gunn said the administration is also talking about removing tracks... take away the money, and then take away the tracks too, so the trains won't have any tracks to run on even if Amtrak becomes privatized and keeps going.

And speaking of books, this Amtrak thing sounds a bit like the part in "Fast Food Nation" where the author describes how General Motors bought up and got rid of the excellent transit system of Los Angeles, so that cars would rule.

What a pisser...

7:39 PM  
Blogger J. Marquis said...

Another reason for the moderate Northeast Republicans to switch over to our side.

I like the movie "The Fountainhead" even though there are parts that made me laugh out loud...for example, how the headlines on the front page of the paper every day are about architecture...

9:36 PM  
Blogger Snave said...

I'll have to watch that movie sometime... architecture? Well. I suppose if our media was drawn less to the sensational and more toward telling us about what's actually happening around the US and around the world, there might actually be a headline about architecture once in a while? Nah, probably not!

7:10 AM  
Blogger Mandelbrot's Chaos said...

I read "Atlas Shrugged", and it was pretty good as a story, but I found the underlying philosophy had a sickeningly-sweet utopian core that was largely based on words better said by others prior to her, though the idea of a strike by all of the top thinkers, assuming it could be global in scope, would be interesting, if not good. I'm all in favor of letting the socialists getting another place to ruin, er, run. The Soviet Union and Europe's economy aren't enough evidence, in my opinion, that socialism is a failed philosophy.

That being said, I think dissent should not only be a permissible thing at the upper levels of government. I think it is vital. Thomas Jefferson, a man few would argue was anything less than one of the greatest presidents in our nation's history, had the most politically-diverse cabinet of any of the 43 men to hold that office. Strange that the current president has, arguably, the least politically-diverse cabinet in the last century.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Snave said...

Excellent points all! MC, I agree that Jefferson was one of our best ever. And it looks like I will have to wade through "Atlas Shrugged" sometime.

7:42 PM  

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