- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

The head of the nation’s passenger rail service defended Amtrak’s spending priorities in a reply to a harsh assessment from the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer David L. Gunn said in a written response to Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead that the rail service isn’t jeopardizing the safety of service in its Northeast Corridor.

Mr. Mead wrote in a Nov. 22 report to Congress that Amtrak was spending millions of dollars fixing long-distance sleeper cars while neglecting investment in bridges and tunnels, a strategy that could create a “major failure” in the rail system.

In response, Mr. Gunn said the passenger rail service is investing in the Northeast Corridor and criticized the negative tone of the inspector general’s report.

“The implication that we are pouring capital money into our long-distance fleet at the expense of the Northeast Corridor is not correct,” he wrote in a letter dated Dec. 3.

Amtrak spent $15.7 million in fiscal 2004 to fix long-distance cars, Mr. Gunn wrote. Amtrak operates 418 long-distance cars, called Superliners.

In contrast, the “vast majority” of Amtrak’s fiscal 2004 engineering budget of $387 million funded work on the Northeast Corridor, Mr. Gunn wrote.

Amtrak couldn’t have performed more work on its busy Northeast tracks without disrupting service, he said, and the agency continues to deal with years of deferred maintenance.

In his report, Mr. Mead called on Congress to provide clear direction for Amtrak, suggesting lawmakers force it to reduce service and proposing the federal government tie funding to progress made in restructuring operations to reduce losses.

Amtrak posted a $1.3 billion operating loss in fiscal 2003. Through June, its fiscal 2004 operating loss was $945 million, according to the inspector general’s report.

Mr. Gunn argued that he “bought time for decision makers” by putting fundamental reforms in place that have stabilized Amtrak since he took over two years ago.

“We are at a point where we can begin to look at this problem over a longer term,” he said.

But the absence of a national transportation policy outlining Amtrak’s role and the lack of sufficient funds make long-term reform impossible, he said.

Congress last month approved $1.22 billion for Amtrak in fiscal 2005, slightly less than its fiscal 2004 subsidy and well short of its $1.8 billion request.

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